Drew Lazor: Landmark Center City bakery adds cafe to the menu

James Barrett and Wendy Smith Born spent two decades planning the opening of Metropolitan Caf.
James Barrett and Wendy Smith Born spent two decades planning the opening of Metropolitan Caf. (YONGKIM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: February 08, 2013

"HONESTLY, I have no sense of time," admitted Wendy Smith Born, gears turning in an attempt to pinpoint precisely when her Metropolitan Bakery began working with upstart Point Breeze coffee roasters GreenStreet.

Though the years might blend together slightly, there's no disputing how long she and James Barrett have been at it. Two decades have passed since the bread bakers opened at 19th and Manning Streets in Center City. And on Monday, they debuted the adjoining Metropolitan Café, an addition that, despite its modern trappings, has been on the to-do list for 20 years.

An institution all its own, Metropolitan grew out of another still-going-strong local food brand: West Philly's White Dog Café, where front-of-houser Born first met Barrett. "We became fast friends," he said, and it wasn't long before the French-trained pastry chef teamed up with Born, who'd moved on to find work in the nonprofit world.

Francophiles with a shared affinity for the old-country European baking style uncommon in Philly at the time - the Metropolitan name was inspired by Paris' Métropolitain transit system - Born and Barrett busted out their first baguettes, boules and berry rolls in 1993. Both were adamant about securing real estate in the area surrounding Rittenhouse Square, even if its culinary landscape wasn't quite as rich back then. "It was a very quiet area at the time," said Born. Susanna Foo and Le Bec-Fin were anchors, but other landmarks, such as Neil Stein's Striped Bass, had yet to open.

"[Rittenhouse had] customers who had been to other places - New York, California, Europe - and had experienced other bread," said Born of the clientele they successfully chased and captured. "We knew that they would understand what we were doing instantly."

Metropolitan's original industrial baking space was slightly less cosmopolitan. Stuffed into the 900-square-foot ground floor of an office building across from what's now SugarHouse Casino, the space was laughably tiny - so much so that bakers hustling to yank leavened loaves from the ovens would knock other employees upside the head with the butts of their wooden peel handles. "In the beginning, James would stay in the bakery all night," said Born, "sleeping for a few hours [before] getting up and opening the café."

As Born and Barrett outgrew their original, minuscule digs, settling into the 10,000-square-foot Marlborough Street facility in Fishtown they occupy today, their retail reach grew, too. "We had eight stores at one time," said Barrett. "Six vehicles, a million drivers, a million bakers. It was crazy." That number has been tightened to a "more efficient" five (Chestnut Hill, Reading Terminal, Rittenhouse, University City and a joint operation with homeless-advocacy group Project HOME in the Central Branch Library on Vine Street), not including the new spot.

"By shrinking, we became more effective," said Born.

So why expand now, opening a space that'll allow Barrett to puff out his chef's chest beyond the baking sheets?

The obvious but inaccurate answer, for keen observers of Center City openings, was the fall 2012 opening of the neighborhood's newest Starbucks, a single block east, at 18th and Spruce. What better way for a scrappy, entrenched "little guy" to stick it to the caffeinated corporate overlords than a direct competitor, right?

It's not quite like that.

The café concept was included in Born and Barrett's very first business plan. Restaurants and retail customers demanding their daily bread saw the idea fall by the wayside for 20 years. In 2013, they're finally ready. "This was very thought-out," said Born.

"We realized that Starbucks' focus and our focus [are] on the opposite ends of the spectrum," added Born of the café, which features roughly 20 seats split between perimeter counter stools and a handsome communal table. GreenStreet provides coffee and espresso, and a fetching Zumex machine cranks out fresh fruit juices, but "what makes us different is the food," she said.

Barrett's menu does celebrate his sourdough specialties - his breads take pressed sandwiches, layered with goodies like tender short rib or Vermont cheddar, to another level - but there is plenty more to eat. Warm breakfast cereals, waffles, top-crust pies, seasonal salads, house-cured salmon, all designed to be eaten in an environment that encourages a measured pace.

Takeout food is available only from the adjacent bakery, where there are no TVs and there is no Wi-Fi access. "The idea here is to disconnect and connect," said Born, who hasn't set foot in the nearby Starbucks. "There is enough time spent on computers and telephones. There's also a time [to] meet people in the neighborhood."

Monday afternoon, Born joked with a pair of neighbors who requested that she invest in a pulley system to shimmy snacks up to the window of their high-rise apartment. Contrast that with Starbucks' crowd on the same day, buried in their laptop screens, high-end headphones blocking out the inoffensive Sade tunes seeping out of the overhead speakers.

"They're everywhere. They're on every corner," said Barrett of Starbucks, which has close to 40 locations within city limits. "[But] they have loyal customers - we have that in common."

The duo credits those devotees as the motivation for their 20 years of far-too-early mornings and far-too-late nights, with no plans to step away from Metropolitan's stone-lined ovens any time soon.

"Unrealistic discussion!" Barrett yelled when his partner hypothetically uttered the "R-word" - retirement.

Born might not possess the keenest grasp of the amount of time passed, but the future's much more interesting, anyway. "Every day, we both wake up passionate about what we're doing, anxious to get going for the day," said Barrett. "We're still loving what we do."

Metropolitan Cafe, 264. S. 19th St., open 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 215-545-6655, metropolitanbakery.com.

Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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