Coffee competition perking up in several Philadelphia neighborhoods

Aaron Ultimo, owner, makes a hand-pour coffee for a customer at his new Ultimo coffee shop at 22d and Catharine Streets in Philadelphia.
Aaron Ultimo, owner, makes a hand-pour coffee for a customer at his new Ultimo coffee shop at 22d and Catharine Streets in Philadelphia. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 26, 2012

The maturation of Philadelphia's high-end coffee scene has resulted in the proliferation of fresh-brewed java from independent shops throughout the region. But several neighborhoods west of Broad Street are experiencing particularly rapid growth, and even some competition among a new class of caffeinated entrepreneurs looking to perk up the enclaves that stretch toward the Schuylkill.

Start in Center City. Among the most successful of the newcomers encroaching on the turf long ruled by Rittenhouse's La Colombe is Elixr Coffee, which Evan Inatome debuted quietly in 2011. Early this year, the New York firm that owns the 200 S. 15th St. building that housed Elixr exercised a lease contingency that required the cafe to relocate.

It took some time for the original Elixr, specializing in the pour-over brewing and single-origin sourcing associated with so-called "third wave" shops, to gain traction. Introductions were smoother at Elixr's new home, a much larger space at Walnut and Sydenham Streets that debuted to consistent crowds in late August.

In addition to its broken-in customer base, the cafe's transparent approach has fostered fans. "It's always been our goal to break down the stereotype of the barista as this trendy, snotty know-it-all," said Elixr manager April Nett.

A few blocks northwest, Andrew Crockett, who launched the Hub Bub Coffee truck near 38th and Spruce Streets in 2009, has signed a lease. Before the end of the year, he plans to open a cafe at 1717 Arch St., on the ground floor of Three Logan Square. "I thought, 'Is there a part of the city that is missing some love?' " he said. "That's how we ended up really looking at the business district."

Crockett acknowledges the shop will draw "a whole new customer" in comparison with his student-driven West Philly business. He aims to capture the 9-to-5 crowd with Stumptown Coffee, served from a pour-over bar and a high-tech Synesso espresso machine. In addition to La Colombe (at 130 S. 19th St.), Hub Bub will be in close competition with the first Philly branch of New York's Joe Coffee, aiming to open at 1845 Walnut St. in 2013.

Competition was not of paramount concern to Aaron Ultimo when he opened his eponymous cafe at 15th and Mifflin Streets in 2009 - there simply isn't any, coffee-wise, the immediate area. But it's a different situation at Ultimo's Graduate Hospital location, which launched Oct. 8. Developer Max Glass razed a building at 22d and Catharine Streets to erect a structure featuring Ultimo's slick cafe on the first floor and a training lab for his roaster, North Carolina-based Counter Culture, on the second.

Graduate Hospital is "a lot further along" than the 15th and Mifflin area in terms of residential saturation, one reason Ultimo wanted to expand here. But with that audience comes a chippier market. Establishments such as Ants Pants, Beauty Shop, and La. Va, plus outlying options like Good Karma, have their loyalists. Regardless, Ultimo is confident in his high-end product. "No one is paying as much attention to what they do as we are," he said.

"It's only going to increase," Ultimo said of the Philly sipping public's awareness of contemporary coffee craft. "It's becoming more and more normal."

Developer Ori Feibush agrees with that sentiment enough to introduce a series of shops emblazoned with his OCF Realty brand, starting with 18th and South Streets, becoming one of Ultimo's closest competitors. The second, which opened at 20th and Federal Streets in late August, is perched on the northern end of Point Breeze Avenue, the primary commercial corridor in the neighborhood of the same name.

Feibush is blunt about the financial viability of Point Breeze's OCF. "[It] will likely not break even, probably ever," he said, "but the hope is that it acts as a catalyst for positive development." The developer has also signed a lease for the Munson Manor space across the street and hints at the possibility of a gastropub.

Feibush's Point Breeze bean supplier, Greenstreet, is a block and a half away, allowing brothers Chris and Tom Molieri the luxury of dropping off product on foot. They took another delivery approach when they established in 2011. "Last year, I was delivering coffee on bicycle, in shoe boxes," said Chris Molieri. Today, the brothers are in an 1,100-square-foot converted floral warehouse, roasting a mostly organic lineup of single-origin beans for dozens of local accounts.

Joining OCF and Greenstreet in Point Breeze is Gary Viteri, in the midst of renovating an enormous former medical center at 18th and Wharton Streets that he will call the Pharmacy. The musician lived nearby for several years, happening upon the property, adorned with dramatic arched windows, through a real estate agent. He's aiming to have the space, which will sell locally roasted coffee by day and host musicians by night, ready by November.

"Things have changed so fast," Viteri said of Point Breeze's recent residential influx. While he has run into some difficulties with zoning and neighborhood opposition, he has received overall a warm welcome from residents.

Though differing in approach, one thing all these kaffeeklatsch entrepreneurs have in common is a forward-looking philosophy that influences both their carefully brewed product and their presence in evolving communities. "To make a baseball analogy, we're in the first couple innings," said Hub Bub's Crockett. "There's still a long way to go."

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