Seeking a way to compete

Locally owned coffee shops find a niche

(Published July 28, 2003)


Staff Writer

Coffee shops in the District are finding that individuality is the key to competing in the "corporate coffee" market.

So says Helene Bloom, a former federal employee, who started Soho Tea and Coffee at 2150 P St. NW nine years ago. Bloom said she believes that the ambience and friendly service offered in her establishment are among her biggest assets in competing with Starbucks, a national chain of coffee shops that opened its 37th store in the District last month.

"The corporate chains are sterile and they have an ‘in the door, out the door’ strategy," Bloom said. "We offer a relaxed environment that the big boys don’t."

These days coffee shops are a booming industry, with at least two new shops scheduled to open this summer in Northwest and rumors of more to come. Although many independent coffee houses face tough competition from Starbucks, some credit the corporate chain with popularizing the phenomenon of drinking coffee outside of the home or office.

"I think that more people are willing to go out for coffee since Starbucks came along, but we have an advantage: our coffee is fresher," said Andrew Mokey, who manages the M.E. Swing coffee shop at 1702 G St. NW.

"They (Starbucks) dark roast their coffee to disguise the age of their beans. Our beans are delivered fresh at least once a week from our location in Alexandria, where we roast the beans ourselves," Mokey said.

Mokey said he sells more than 1,000 cups of coffee every day, mostly to regular customers who work in the surrounding federal buildings. The M.E. Swing Co. has been roasting coffee beans in the area since 1916. The company’s primary operation is in the roasting and wholesale distribution of coffee beans, so they only have one shop to "put a face to the name" of their product, Mokey said.

Like other shops around town, employees at The Firehook Bakery & Coffeehouse at 441 Fourth St. NW, prepare regulars’ drinks as soon as they are spotted at the door.

"For like 85 percent of our customers, we know what they want before they open their mouth to order. We just make it," said manager Alex Sanchez, who boasted that his coffee is stronger than the competition’s.

"We brew our coffee strong because we have a lot of customers who work long hours. They need something that can keep them going all day," Sanchez said.

Audrey Nwanze, who owns and manages the Mocha Hut at 4706 14th St. NW, said that coffee shops now – more than ever – have have to offer more than just coffee to stay in business.

"You’re seeing this trend where coffee shops can’t survive on coffee sales alone," she said. "Starbucks has their line of coffee-related merchandise, other places sell alcohol. In our case, it’s breakfast in addition to coffee."

Another trend in the coffee shop industry is providing clients with free internet access. This usually comes in the form of access to a wireless hub, whereby customers can bring their laptops with wireless modems and connect to a network. Some coffee shops also provide computers hooked up to the Web.

"Today’s the age of technology, baby," said Soho Tea and Coffee’s Bloom, who has been offering free wireless internet access for three months.

"I get a lot of students, tourists and local professionals who appreciate having that," she said.

Local entrepreneurs seem to think now is a good time to open up coffee shops in the District. On July 21, Columbia Heights Coffee opened its doors at 3416 11th St. NW to customers eager to have a splash of coffee in their own neighborhood.

"It’s pretty good stuff," said Michael Mintzell as he sipped from his second cup on the Columbia Heights Coffee shop’s second day of business.

Mintzell, a Columbia Heights native who lives around the corner from the shop, said he used to have to travel to the Java House in Dupont Circle to get his coffee.

Columbia Heights Coffee was started by Marty Zupancic, 29, a former systems engineer who recently left the computer field to solve what he saw as a neighborhood problem.

"I moved here two years ago and one morning woke up and walked for 10 blocks and asked myself, ‘Where the hell can I get a cup of coffee?’" Zupancic said. "After that, I studied the demographics of the area and put together a business plan, and now here I am."

In his first day of business, Zupancic said he served at least 60 customers.

Another entrepreneur who hopes to grab some of the java drinking market is Warren Brown. Brown, 32, is planning to open a coffee shop called The Love Cafe early this fall. Brown owns Cakelove bakery at 1506 U St. NW and said he will stock the cafe – to be located across the street from the bakery – with fresh baked goods from Cakelove.

When it opens, The Love Cafe will have to compete with a Starbucks at 16th and U streets NW and eventually with another Starbucks being built at 13th and U.

"I’m not looking to get every single Starbucks customer, but we were finding that people were buying our bakery products and then going to Starbucks for their coffee," Brown said. "Now they’ll be able to get everything in one place."

Starbucks got its start in the District in 1993 when it opened its Tenleytown shop. The first Starbucks store in the nation opened in Seattle in 1971, and the company now operates 6,294 shops worldwide.

The price for a cup of coffee in the District varies from shop to shop, but an informal survey found the price to be between $1 and $1.66 for a "small" cup usually containing about 12 ounces. Generally, blends can be purchased in small, medium and large cups, but many of the specialty drinks – including frappes – are served only in larger sizes.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator