As Old City Coffee (OCC) enters its 32nd year as Philadelphia's original small batch roaster, the landscape of the business has changed dramatically.
"When we opened in 1985 most people didn't even understand the concept of the store," says OCC founder Ruth Isaac. "Coffee was something that you got at the diner or lunch counter at Linton's or classic Horn & Hardart Automats."
Now the coffee shop business in Philadelphia is on fire led of course by national mega-chains, and stepped efforts aggressive local chains and one-off shops. In the face of the new wave of new shop openings including several in the surrounding neighborhood, Old City Coffee has made a strategic decision to embrace the traditional values of specialty coffee culture while employing the latest technologies to stay competitive and actually grow the business.
"Coffee roasting for us is art, not science," says Jack Treatman, partner and proud coffee nerd of OCC.
"Our choice to use vintage equipment from roasting to brewing is not a matter of being stuck in the past. We believe that the extra measure of flavor and quality that really discerning coffee drinkers demand is best done using traditional methods. But we're not doctrinaire about it. Our state-of-the-art espresso machines are like the Mars landing craft."
The classic mid-century roaster used by OCC at their Reading Terminal location, has cast iron panels, and one set of traditional gas burners under a revolving steel drum. This is the same technology that Alfred Peet used to begin the American coffee renaissance in 1966. The design of this roaster actually has origins back to 19th century.
The classic OCC coffee taste offers maximum smoothness and rich subtle flavors achieved by the alchemy-- or art really -- form roasting by color, sound, smell and skilled intuition," says Jack. "At a time when the market is really awash with options, OCC is very comfortable being a 'single profile' roaster."
Even in the pouring of a simple cup of coffee OCC is very traditional using lovingly maintained and regularly serviced vintage coffee urns. Though no doubt a sacrifice to efficiency for busy coffee shops, every aficionado knows when they see a pump canister or some other secondary dispensing container, that the chemistry of a good cup has been compromised by exposure to the air.
"We use the vintage urns despite some difficulty and extra expense for maintenance because it is a closed system," explains Jack. "The coffee pouring into your cup is coming directly, uninterrupted from the brewing process."
Even with this emphasis on tradition, OCC is not being left out as the latest wave of coffee shops floods Philadelphia. Thanks to its three strategically located retail locations on Church Street in Old City, and two spots at the Reading Terminal Market, OCC literally serves tens of thousands of new customers every year.
"Being in destination locations like Church Street in Old City, a half block from the tourist magnet historic Christ Church, and the Reading Terminal, we have the huge advantage of having patrons coming to us as part of the Old City tourist experience," says Ruth.
The many patrons who have lived in Old City over the last 30 years and have moved away, are still very loyal and visit whenever they are in the neighborhood and order online from OCC regularly. And the monthly wave of new patrons from across the country and around the world produces a steadily growing tide of new online orders, though OCC is only shipping orders in the USA.
"Organically over 32 years we have built a large clientele of patrons from this area as well as nationally. People like our coffee, like us on Facebook, and now visit us on our all new mobile compatible web site with easy online ordering for whole bean and custom grind coffees. And they are shopping with us online in ever growing numbers," says Ruth adding that OCC is only shipping internationally to many Army Post Office recipients.
In the last year OCC has re-tooled its web and social media presence and is focused on growing its business without adding locations, running counter the city's coffee shop proliferation trend.
Always self-effacing Ruth says," Just like when we opened in 1985, we make up for the lack of a strategic vision, by working hard and having a diligent staff. Our staff and their many big and little contributions to making the customer experience pleasant, is an approach that has always worked for us."