At Leotah's Place, great coffee is only part of the story

Posted: August 22, 2013

B RITTNEY "BLEW" Lewis, 25, of Kensington, owns Leotah's Place CoffeeHouse, at York and Coral streets in Kensington. Lewis, a single mom, started the business with a former business partner in 2010 as a spot where patrons could gather for coffee, conversation and community events.

Q: How'd you get the idea?

A: I worked at Starbucks but realized there weren't any cafes that were true community spaces in lower-income neighborhoods. I met a friend with a portable espresso machine who introduced me to direct-trade coffee. He gave me $5,000 of equipment and I got people in the neighborhood and church to buy his beans and that went to pay off the equipment and get my name out there.

Q: What about start-up money?

A: We worked with a credit union, got money from my ex-business partner's father and community loans.

Q: Why the name Leotah's?

A: That was my mother's middle name. She taught me a lot about people and loved coffee.

Q: Who are your customers?

A: People who've lived [in Kensington] for years, but most are professionals, between 20 and 50, who moved in here with families, bought new houses or renovated old ones; artists and musicians.

Q: What separates Leotah's Place from other cafes?

A: We have a kids' corner and we are community-driven. We have a public computer and Friday music nights. We do direct-trade coffee, and not everybody does that. They're either doing fair trade or nicely roasted coffee. Our roasters work directly with farms overseas. We also have herbal teas from Brookville, Pa. [about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh].

Q: And Friday music nights?

A: We slowed down in the summer, but we'll start that up again in the fall. It's a way to cultivate community. Leotah's is a place of cultural enrichment and community activism. We learn about different cultures through music and the origin of our coffee beans.

Q: The cafe is in a gentrifying neighborhood. Why did you think you could succeed?

A: I opened this when I was 22 and very ambitious. [The location] had no logic to it. Part of me wishes I was on a main street, but then customers tell me this is their secret oasis and that's good.

Q: What's the biggest challenge growing the business?

A: My 18-month-old son. It's a challenge to be a single mom and run a business by myself.

Q: How big a business is this?

A: We do about $12,000 to $14,000 a month, but our expenses are similar so we break even or have a small profit.

Q: How many employees?

A: Besides me, five part time.

Q: What's next?

A: We have a catering arm and I go to locations and set up pastries, fruit and veggie platters, something I can do with my son. I'm thinking about a second cafe in this area or in Germantown.

On Twitter: @MHinkelman


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