Small local cafes prepare for La Colombe's big expansion—and the numbers suggest more coffee makes a better neighborhood.
When La Colombe announced it’d be opening its flagship location in Fishtown, neighbors welcomed co-founders JP Iberti and Todd Carmichael with open arms. The Philly company, which supplies coffee beans to more than 1,200 restaurants and hotels across the U.S., plans to rehab a vacant former warehouse on the 1300 block of Frankford Ave., turning it into a bakery, rum distillery and café. The site is on a block alongside businesses like Art Machine Productions, a tattoo parlor—and Lola Bean, another sit-in coffee shop.
Residents were more than happy to have another locally owned business in the area. Not just Philly-owned, either: Iberti lives in Fishtown. “They saw a need, they saw a niche, and they wanted to be local—to have their business close to where they live and help the neighborhood really be the best it can be,” says Kate Micklow Harwan, president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association. “I think residents of Fishtown are really starting to recognize that and get behind all these small business owners.”
Indeed—but not all of them. Almost immediately, some neighbors took to Fishtown message boards and Lola Bean’s Facebook page to complain about La Colombe’s decision: Would the huge facility run the smaller shop out of the neighborhood like a big-box store eating up the local pharmacy in Anytown, U.S.A.? Especially since Lola Bean was one of the 1,200 spots which actually served La Colombe coffee.
“We have faith that the people that have patronized and supported us since we opened our doors over three years ago will continue to do just that,” Lola Bean owners Erica Zito and Mary Button wrote on the shop’s Facebook page a week before the zoning board meeting that would overwhelmingly approve La Colombe’s new location. “This is Fishtown. Fishtowners don’t run from a challenge, and we don’t run from uncertainty. We see it, we pull up our boot straps and jump in!”
Zito stands by that statement today. “We sort of made that [Facebook] statement to be able to show confidence to our customers and say publicly that we’re not going to get thrown off course by a big change like that,” she says. “It’s made us look within our own business to see what we need to change, as opposed to freaking out because someone is moving next door—which is what lots of our customers started doing. They got very defensive and protective of us, very concerned because we have those relationships there… When we saw that, it definitely made us feel good—because, obviously, these people are valuing the relationship they have with our shop beyond just a cup of coffee.”
Lola Bean is one of numerous coffee shops that have opened in the super-gentrified section of Philadelphia since 2010. After Lola Bean joined Rocket Cat Café on Frankford Avenue came shops like Milk Crate, Soup Kitchen Café, Coffee House Too, Reanimator Coffee, Steap and Grind—and, across Frankford Ave. in East Kensington, Leotah’s Place.
In fact, the city has seen an influx of sit-in coffee shops throughout its outskirt neighborhoods in recent years. West Philly, Fairmount, Northern Liberties and South Philly have all, in one way or another, made coffee a central part of neighborhood building. It’s not just a coincidence: Studies show coffee is a necessary and unique slice in changing any city neighborhood and maintaining community within any urban area.
Zito and Button had been preparing for the new venture next door for over a year when, last month, they made a big decision: They switched beans, from La Colombe’s to GreenStreet Coffee Roasters’, which are roasted in the Point Breeze section of the city.
“We’ve been open now for three and a half years, so it makes sense as a business after three years to evaluate where you’re going, what you’re doing, what needs to change, what needs to grow,” Zito says, noting that La Colombe’s upcoming adjacency impacted the decision but only in part. GreenStreet, she points out, “are two brothers—really lovely, and they complement each other in how they run their business. As people, we were very drawn to working with them. Their product also happens to be very good.”
It’s the same sort of decision they made before opening Lola Bean in the first place. They’d been La Colombe drinkers themselves for years while living in Baltimore, and when they moved to Fishtown in 2005, already knowing they intended to open a coffee shop, it was a given that of course they’d use the local company’s beans. (La Colombe roasts in Port Richmond.)
“There was so much change still to come, and so many new people still coming into the neighborhood, that it felt like there was room for us all to be successful,” Zito says. “If you look at the three and a half years we’ve been open, at least four or five [new coffee shops] have opened up. That’s a lot for a short amount of time. I think the neighborhood is very responsive to new business in general, as long as what you are bringing is of quality and you show the neighborhood that you care about it.”
Harwan, from the Fishtown association, agrees that’s exactly what the neighborhood cares about. All the shops mentioned, subsequent to Rocket Cat and Milk Crate, opened after a zoning meeting with both neighborhood and local residents. Most coffee businesses, Harwan notes, “are definitely run by local people... They all need to have a vote for the zoning process, and the great thing about the Fishtown zoning process is that it’s open to all members of the neighborhood, not just people within 500 feet of the proposal.”
For instance: 97 people attended the zoning meeting for ReAnimator Coffee, a specialty coffee shop on Susquehanna Ave., on April 16, 2013. After hearing from the potential business owner, there were two votes: A local vote (those who live within 500 feet of the business), which went 31-6; and the greater community vote: 60-0. Similarly enthusiastic votes took place for the rest of the aforementioned shops.
“These coffee shops are well spread out throughout the neighborhood, and a lot of their traffic is local foot traffic,” Harwan says. “I think it fosters engagement from neighbors in the community. Lola Bean is really participatory in First Friday, and I know they’ve been really great with meeting the neighbors—they donate coupons and things like that.”
It’s not just cozy friendliness that cafes have to offer, though. As it turns out: Neighbors who’ve got property value on the mind? They’re particularly smart to yearn for java.
According to a 2011 study by four sociologists at the University of Massachusetts, coffee is a key factor in gentrifying any neighborhood. As cities transition from the factories of yesteryear, like those that fill Fishtown, to a post-scarcity economy—in which goods and services are readily available and culture, rather than physical industry, becomes a socially engineered focus of communities—the coffee business represents a predictable, booming staple.
It’s a $10-billion-per-year business nationwide. Forty percent of those 18 to 24 years old regularly drink coffee, up from 31 percent in 2010, according to the Small Business Development Center Network. Fifty-four percent of adults aged 25 to 39 drink it daily, and more than 183 million Americans consider themselves coffee guzzlers. The market is huge—if you know how to cultivate it.
“Coffee sellers use specific marketing language to recreate high-culture ideas tied to art and philosophy for its customers, targeting an ideal bourgeois patron,” the UMass sociologists wrote in their research paper. “Not dealing in a necessary comestible product, such as milk or bread, but rather a status product, coffee shops are integral to the leisure and lifestyle amenities package so attractive to urban gentrifiers. In a post-need economy, coffee shops meet the urban consumer’s demands for a space to meet friends or use the Internet, demands which were mostly absent from the neighborhood’s prior population.”
In other words: The books, the games, the fliers, the wall art you see in your local cafe—that’s not by accident. All these things are associated with an inner-city professional bohemian lifestyle. As such, the study reported, “measuring the number of coffee shops located in a neighborhood each year provides an almost real-time measure” of gentrification.