It wasn't just the coffee, though. It was a first encounter with a new coffee culture, too - not the diner, not the coffeehouse, but a rambunctious, hustling crew of servers and baristas drawn from the ranks of actors, musicians, and University of the Arts students.
In other words, they weren't burned out. They weren't stuck in a dead-end job. They were caffeinated - and ready to rock. The music blaring from the 135-square-foot stand could be its own wake-up call.
Jeff Lincoln, who'd studied the coffeeways of the West Coast before moving east with his wife-to-be (Linda Lincoln, née Passero), had been told to fuggetabout it: "Philly's a blue-collar town," the locals warned. "Nobody's going to pay the big bucks for fancy gourmet coffee."
Well, they did, of course. And by the time Lincoln sold the business 16 years later (to the Juan Valdez chain of Colombian coffee shops), he'd opened four more locations, including one in the lobby of the Wanamaker building.
With the specialty coffee market crowding up, he'd started another business (Lincoln Lawn Frames) making patented, snap-together "For Sale" signs for the real estate trade. You can guess what happened to demand for those last year. But then a funny thing happened: The chain of Colombian shops pulled out of town.
So after almost four years, Jeff Lincoln has returned to his first love. Except this time around the city was awash in specialty coffee; even McDonald's had upgraded. Dunkin' Donuts, too, not to mention the entire galaxy of Starbucks and hipster indies.
Selling a 12-ounce cup ($1.57) of specialty coffee alone, even using - as Passero's does - Fonseca, the tiny, organic-fair trade Audubon roaster that sends its proceeds to support medical care in Nicaragua and elsewhere, doesn't cut it. (A nicely balanced cup from the Mococa region of Brazil was being featured last week.)
That meant Lincoln would have to rely on his secret weapon - bonding with his customers: "I say we're not in the coffee business. We're in the customer-service business."
You can teach anyone to make a good espresso, he says. But you've got maybe 45 seconds a morning to build rapport. So he looks for speed, for one thing: "We had one young lady come in for an interview, and she took two weeks, I mean two minutes, though it seemed like two weeks, to slowly take off each glove, and then her hat and her scarf and her coat. . . . It was drama and it was about her. She didn't get the job."
But more than that ever, he looks for workers who are upbeat and who smile naturally. In other words, not robots. He feels that's Starbucks' Achilles' heel, that efficiency has trumped personality. He interviews prospective hires three times, "until they're rolling their eyes." What three words would your friends chisel on your tombstone? he asks. How would you finish the sentence, "This I believe . . .?"
At the Wanamaker shop, which reopened in the fall, he ended up with a gaggle of actors and aspiring actors. And in Suburban Station - where the stand has doubled in size - he has Katerina Charalambidis, a server from the Green Eggs Cafe in South Philly, and a broadly smiling Emily Amarnick, a part-time personal chef and vegan baker.
You can sample her muffins with your espresso or Brazilian Mococa. They're offered under the sign that says "Mrs. Pleasant."
How'd she come up with the name? "My parents called me 'Mrs. Pleasant,' " she says. "They said I was always smiling, ever since I was a baby."
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.