Reflections on Eleven Years in DC Coffee

About a year ago, I realized that I had passed the ten year mark in the DC coffee scene, which caused some reflection and nearly resulted in a blog post titled, “Reflections on Ten Years in DC Coffee” had I not been too busy to sit still and record my thoughts. Now that I have a few minutes to write, I realize that the current appropriate title for this may be, “Why I Love the Current State of DC Coffee.” As the global specialty coffee world has grown, DC has been a unique coffee city in a nation where many of our cities now have companies clawing and fighting with each other to get the most press, attention and daily traffic. Up to now, the upper echelon of DC coffee has been populated by hard-working, passionate and friendly individuals or families, which has created a community that supports one another, cares about the communities we serve and is more focused on creating wonderful coffee than creating profit for investors.

Over the past eleven years, I’ve seen and experienced countless examples of businesses helping one another succeed. When one could say that we should be fierce competitors looking to exploit weaknesses, time after time support and selflessness has won out. Your paper supplier didn’t deliver? Here’s a case of cups. UPS only dropped off half your coffee order? Here’s 20 lbs to get you through. Your pre-opening health inspection is coming up? Here are the pitfalls we ran into. I’ve personally been on both the giving and receiving end of all of these (and so many more) scenarios. We are a community that is full of caring individuals, dedicated to each other’s success rather than hopeful for each other’s failure. We speak well of one another, refer customers to one another and respect and celebrate each other’s strengths.

While not every neighborhood has a first-rate coffee bar yet, I’ve been so happy to witness great cafes sprouting up across our city. It’s apparent that, as a community, we open shops where we live, where we like to hang out or where we find an intriguing community- not necessarily where we can make the most money. Why is downtown DC somewhat underserved at the moment? Its just a theory, but I think its because the high-volume, high-profit locations haven’t been as attractive to DC’s coffee entrepreneurs when they have an opportunity to invest into—and create—communities for a much lower investment and much lower monthly rent but experience a much greater personal reward. Personally, I have a dedication to my staff to ask myself about any potential location, “Would I enjoy working here? If I wasn’t working, is this an area where I would enjoy spending time?” If no, then maybe it isn’t the right fit for Peregrine. Many of the opportunities that we’ve had downtown up to now would’ve been high-profile and high-traffic and probably “great for our brand” but failed this simple test. DC’s neighborhood cafes invest in communities, usually attracting employees from within their neighborhoods, pour money back into other neighborhood businesses and help build communities rather than location portfolios or bank accounts.

The fact that our coffee scene is dominated by passionate coffee people rather than investors or nationally expanding brands keeps these coffee-focused businesses focused on the coffee. We love investing in our employees and training them from scratch to be professional and knowledgeable coffee people. Personally, I love being able to promote staff from within and reward hard work and dedication to our company goals.  The companies that have expanded have done so slowly and organically, usually gauging the existing staffs’ ability to fill new management roles and the owners’ personal capacity to add responsibilities without swallowing up hobbies, family or sanity. Since we all love coffee, we attend, host and support monthly Thursday Night Latte Art Throwdowns, which enjoy great participation and attendance from a wide range of shops. Baristas across the city can be found visiting cafes where they don’t work and actually buying cups of coffee because they want to taste what everyone else is serving and, usually, coffee people love hanging out at coffee shops. We’ve learned together, pushed each other and enjoyed friendly competition without any need to keep secrets or create alliances.

Other cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and others have become battlegrounds for nationally expanding companies like Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, Stumptown and others. Who knows why they’ve largely ignored DC up to now. Do they see DC as a second-tier city? Is DC not quite hip enough? Not quite dense enough? I’m not entirely certain but I’m thankful that we’ve had the time we’ve had to develop a great community of businesses, owners and baristas that support one another, invest in our communities and love serving people lovely coffee. I’m sure this won’t last forever but, up to now, it has been pretty great and I’m grateful for the coffee community we have.

Ryan

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