Competition drives independent coffee shops

Little Goat Coffee, which opened in downtown Newark two months ago, is among the “third wave” of coffee shops that prioritize quality and sourcing.

By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times

Ask your coworkers to name their favorite coffee shops, and the answers might surprise you. Some might point to Starbucks or independently owned coffeehouses like Drip Café and Brew HaHa! Others prefer a quick stop at Wawa or spots like Centreville Café, De La Coeur Café and Kaisy’s Delights, which purists might not consider typical coffee shops.

Welcome to today’s coffee climate, where grabbing a latte is as easy as pressing a button on a Nespresso machine. While the options are ideal for the consumer, they can be a challenge for a coffee-centric business. Staying in the game takes a keen ability to create a distinct experience.

Riding the wave

American coffee culture arrived in waves. The first wave made coffee an accessible household item. Think Folgers and Nescafe Taster’s Choice. In the mid-20th century, coffee consumption swelled. The 1960s brought companies such as Peet’s Coffee & Tea of Berkley, California, which began artisanal sourcing, roasting and blending.

In the 1970s, when the Seattle coffee scene took shape, the term “specialty coffee” was coined. The Specialty Coffee Association scores coffees on a 100-point scale. Those with 60 points or above are considered commercial-grade. At 80 points or above, they are specialty.

By the 1990s, Starbucks had begun to spread across America. This is known as the “second wave.” In Delaware, Alisa Morkides ushered in the second wave in 1993, when she opened the first Brew HaHa! in Greenville. The local chain today has 10 locations.

By the turn of the century, specialty coffee was considered a luxury. People who need to save money cut out the daily trip to Starbucks. But for others, a fancy latte is a necessity. According to a national survey conducted by Nielsen Scarborough in spring 2016, more than 36 million Americans had visited a coffeehouse within the past month.

Today, coffeehouse is a loose term. Kaisy’s Delights, which has locations in Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, is best known for its shredded Austrian pancake. But it’s also a coffeehouse, maintains owner Thierry Langer. “A coffee shop is a place where you can get coffee,” he said. The menu includes drip coffee, macchiato and Americano. “Our coffee,” he added, “is incredibly better.”

The third wave

Diedrich Coffee Roaster, hand crafted in Idaho.

Those are fighting words among some coffee lovers. “Coffee has become, I guess, more serious, sort of like craft beer,” Morkides says. “It’s about roasting and focusing on direct trade and getting varietals that have their own specific taste profile.”

The interest in sourcing and flavor is one reason why she started Brandywine Coffee Roasters in the enlarged Trolley Square location. The flavors all have a local slant, which is also part of the artisanal movement in food.

Brandywine Coffee Roasters also has some company. Little Goat Coffee Roasting opened in September in downtown Newark. The owners, however, had been roasting beans for farmers markets for the past two years. The House of William & Merry and The Perfect Cup serves the company’s coffee.

“You can see the whole roasting process and buy a bag of beans, as well as get your standard drip coffee, cold brew coffee and espresso drinks,” said co-owner Olivia Brinton, who’d worked for a similar business in Asheville, North Carolina. “There’s no food. There’s a very small coffee bar.” Little Goat uses all organic and certified Fair Trade coffee beans. Organic milk and sugar sit on the counter.

Brinton and her partners plan to grow the wholesale business rather than open additional locations with coffee bars.

Brewing up a local experience

Notting Hill in downtown Lewes is another coffee shop known for roasting coffee beans in house. The slightly acrid scent drifts over the historic town at night.

But roasting isn’t for everyone. Greg Vogeley, owner of Drip Café in Lantana Square in Hockessin, isn’t interested in roasting his own coffee. It’s a different ball game from “slinging espressos and making lattes,” he says.

Vogeley has elected to differentiate his shop with a menu that includes such dishes as beer-marinated grilled chicken breast on a toasted pretzel bun with lettuce, pickled peaches and maple Dijonnaise.

Personalized service can also help an independent stand out from a chain. That’s one reason why Morkides doesn’t follow a formula when it comes to Brew HaHa!’s décor. Each location reflects the surrounding community.

In Milford, Dolce has been a hub for the locals since 2004. Stephanie and Dean Tatman were longtime customers before buying it in 2016. “It was part of our Saturday routine,” Stephanie Tatman said. “We thought maybe we’d want to own a coffee shop when we retired, but it became available and life is short.”

Dolce offers espresso-based drinks and drip coffee and baked goods. The new owners are slowly building a lunch menu, starting with soups. They’re also keeping an eye on trends, one of which is cold brews and nitro brews. But currently there’s a lack of space for the equipment.

In Rehoboth, Mug & Spoon sells cold brew coffee (which seeps for 24 hours) and nitro brewed coffee, as well as colossal milkshake creations topped with such novelties as cake and edible sugar.

While local shops refine their services, Starbucks and Wawa keep opening locations. Let them come, said Vogeley, who knew that Starbucks was gong to open in the shopping center even before he signed the lease.
“There is a thought among independents that you should open next to a Starbucks,” he said. “They put a big beacon on the side of the road: ‘There’s coffee in this area.’ They then realize that there are options,” he said.
Indeed, Morkides expanded her Greenville site to include alcohol and an enhanced menu, which sets it apart from the nearby Starbucks.

A successful coffee shop remains true to an old-fashioned premise. “It’s about people,” she says, “and not just the coffee.”

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