Listen: Origin Story – Cortona Café
Cortona Café is “a café in Seattle’s Central District that puts community first.” Located on the corner of East Union and 25th, Cortona is a cozy two-story café, art gallery and event space curated for community conversation. Owner Isolynn Dean—who mostly goes by Ice—is one of those community members herself, living only a few houses away.
Born in Carson, California, Ice arrived in Seattle in 2011 as a transplant from St. Louis. She initially moved in with her sister and her brother-in-law Jason, who lived in the Central District. At the time, Jason owned the café, and Ice began working there as a barista.
In 2013, Jason chose to move on from Cortona and offered his staff and other locals in the coffee industry the chance to buy the business. “At that time, I was working here, and I also was planning on moving to Thailand for a couple years,” Ice explains. “So I had a saved up a nice chunk of change. And long story short, I just made a decision, like, do I grow up and do this? I was 24, also. Like, do I grow up and do this, or do I travel the world for a little bit? And obviously, I’m here. So you know which one I chose!”
There was a steep learning curve when Ice took over the business, not only because she was a first-time business owner, but also because of the extra projects she took on right from the start. “There are a few things I did to tweak the shop and bring in extra income. I had all these ideas.”
One of these projects was hosting food pop-ups at Cortona. Ice’s friend Zac Reynolds—now owner of Cook Weaver in Capitol Hill—came and served food from Cortona’s small kitchen space consistently on weekends for two years. Ice also made it a priority to host a few events per week at Cortona, to help bring in more customers. Her most ambitious project was getting a parklet built right outside the café on East Union. “It was actually a beautiful experience,” she says, describing how a handful of people in the neighborhood worked together to raise the $35,000 needed to make the parklet a reality. “I just had a lot of community support.”
The community Ice has been able to find in the Central District has kept her living in the neighborhood through her nearly eight years in Seattle, and she reflects the way that the neighborhood embraced her in how she runs her business and treats her customers. “The Central District used to be very diverse. And it still feels like city, but it also feels like neighborhood. It feels like community. We talk to each other, we help each other. And I think with [Cortona Café]—before I got here, and since I’ve been here—I feel like I’ve created a little hub where people can come and get to know their neighbors. People will come here and they’ll talk to random strangers,” she says.
“I wish more of Seattle was how it is in Cortona. I love this little space and the vibes. I think it makes people comfortable. I think how I was accepted into the community in the Central District is how we are here.”
Ice credits family and community members for assisting her along the way as a new small business owner, and she also took advantage of free mentoring through one of our partner organizations, Greater Seattle SCORE. Her mentor, Scott, had experience as a business owner and was there to give advice: “We would meet up for coffee. Any questions I had, any frustrations, he would pretty much answer them within the first two minutes.” Office of Economic Development staffer Mikel Davila also built a relationship with the business, coming by to let Ice know about funding opportunities available to her.
Now, having owned and operated Cortona for a few years, Ice has her own advice to pass along to aspiring Seattle entrepreneurs. “Be ready to lose sleep…You have to really care about what you’re doing. Because if not, it’s just not going to last.” And, importantly: “Have a support system—you can’t do this by yourself.”
Ice doesn’t plan to run Cortona forever, but before she leaves, she hopes to mentor and groom the next owner so that the café can continue to be a safe, beautiful, comfortable, legacy space for years to come.
You can find Cortona Café at 2425 E Union St. Come get a pastry (all made by POC vendors in the Central District), try a waffle, host your next book club meeting upstairs, or just stop in for coffee and conversation. “Just show up. We want to see you!”