Coffee Culture at La Colombe | Interview with Co-Founder JP Iberti
The coffee experience today has evolved into more than just getting your daily caffeine fix – it has become an important ritual, a gathering space, a social lubricant. These descriptors are exactly what the founders of La Colombe Coffee Roasters keep in mind with their cafes.
Philadelphia-based roaster La Colombe started in 1994 from one coffee shop and has evolved into a national coffee brand that embodies that unique take on the coffee experience. By sourcing their coffee with care and elevating the experience of the average coffee shop, they truly live up to their motto – America Deserves Better Coffee.
JP Iberti, president and co-founder of La Colombe, sat down with MiND Magazine to discuss how the idea of La Colombe came to be and how they are setting their own standard for the coffee industry.
JP originally started his career in Seattle in aviation school. As JP puts it, he “fell into coffee.” After working for an Italian coffee company, and being French and Italian himself, catching the coffee bug was inevitable.
“When the owners decided to sell the coffee company I had been working for, I was heartbroken. I thought, this is really what I want to do, I love this, I don’t want to have a career in aviation; I want to work in coffee. Todd [Carmichael] and I were best friends, and we always talked about starting our own company, so that’s what we did.”
As for Philadelphia being their city of choice, JP explains that after touring a few other cities, the real estate, as well as the coffee culture, was the selling point to start in Philly.
“Philadelphia was, and is, just a very walkable city. It was a different place in 1993 when we went to look at it, compared to how it is now. The proximity of huge markets like New York and DC was very attractive to us. Philadelphia had a budding culinary scene that we saw potential in, so we started as wholesale purveyors of coffee. We also noticed that Philly was lacking cafe culture, something that we saw success in back in Seattle. Couple that with the inexpensive yet abundant amount of production space and we knew we had our home. Philly used to make everything for this country and when you look at how much factory space we have, it’s amazing. It was an easy choice to be in Philadelphia.”
Simplicity and attention to detail are always at the forefront of everything La Colombe does. They are truly trying to start a new way of thinking when it comes to the coffee experience.
“The core value applies to detail. I look at La Colombe as a person, as a human with a personality. It has an identity which keeps the relationship very real. I think that’s very important in retail, especially when we do high volume. We move a lot of people in and out of our cafes, but we can still have a real conversation and make eye contact. Keeping it real and creating a simple, beautiful experience are keys to our design.”
In terms of design philosophy and aesthetic, JP defines La Colombe cafes in two words: elegant and hand forged.
“We’re two guys who have worked with our hands for a very long time. I think it’s important that this shows in the brand. But also, there is this sense of elegance that we like to bring. If you look at it like a Venn diagram – where elegance meets hand forged – this is where I define the brand aesthetically.”
“I look at La Colombe as a person, as a human with a personality.”
At La Colombe, the job is never done – JP believes there is constant room for growth and improvement, applicable to the coffee they produce and the cafes they sell it in.
“At La Colombe, we never think ‘this is it, this is done,’ whether it’s a cafe, a beverage, or a chocolate bar. We look at everything we do as an evolution. What our client eats is not what they will eat in five years, so our cafes will be different tomorrow than they are today. I think this is the main element in our company.”
Coffee has always been seen as a ritualistic and daily hobby. There are more artisan coffee shops and unique coffee destinations now more than ever. With the rapidly expanding coffee craze, La Colombe stays true to its mission of elevating America’s coffee experience.
“The experience is important. When we design a cafe, it’s really more about the mechanics of the flow. Our flow, how we move people around the bar is key. When we have customers waiting in line at our cafes, it gives us some anxiety. We want to be good hosts. We want the space to feel comfortable and inviting. When we design a café, we keep asking ourselves how will they enter the space? How will they wait in line? And from there we design our signature coffee bars.
We also tie in some custom La Colombe elements, like the water fountain, the mirrors and the globes. These are all key design features that make the place inviting. These are important to us. We don’t look at ourselves as decorators who are trying to make the best-looking cafe possible – we simply want to create a wonderful experience for our customers. We work with real material like glass, metal, wood, brick, and we try to make them come together in a way that tells you that it’s handmade. We don’t have to say those words, the customers can feel it. So, the way the metal comes into the wood, the way the table connects to the floor, those things tell the customer what kind of craftsman we are. Again, we are people who work with our hands and we want it to show. I can tell when cafes are made 100% by architects – they have this slick feel to them; that’s what architects do! That’s their brain, and that’s why I drive them crazy because I always throw a wrench into the system.”
As JP mentioned, human interaction in itself is extremely vital to the brand DNA. The social aspect of coffee always remains at the forefront in each of their cafes.
“I always tell our employees, who are so important to the success of our cafes, that it all comes down to this idea of making great interactions. I’m not talking about the financial transaction, I am talking about the interaction when the barista hands the person their drink. That transition is so important.”
The ritual of making coffee embodies the ideas of craftsmanship, historical importance and care. Overtime, we have seen the coffee culture evolve and adapt to new markets but coffee in itself is still deeply personal.
“The ritual of having someone make you a coffee is really deep. We often get customers telling Todd and I that we can’t change their cafe. We are always looking to improve, but people take ownership and become attached to the place where they get their coffee each morning. We love this because it means that people are very connected to the experience we provide. We’re honored to be part of that.”
Originally, La Colombe started as a wholesale company, providing coffee to high end restaurants. By supplying and supporting the coffee industry, La Colombe was able to learn a lot about the industry and put an emphasis back on the craftsmanship of coffee.
“The ritual of having someone make you a coffee is really deep.”
“20 years ago, coffee was in a very strange place. In restaurants, it wasn’t in the hands of the kitchen or the dining room. It fell into the hands of whomever was free at the moment to make the coffee. We decided we had to be the voice behind coffee and focus a lot on training people. Coffee isn’t a finished product. It’s like food; you get the best ingredients, but you need to do a few things before you can serve it.”
“Service is so important, and I know it sounds cliché, but taking care of people is key. For me coffee isn’t all about the best bean or best roast. It’s also about the customer and the service. I have been to many places where it feels like the café, or even the coffee, is the center stage, where for us it’s always about the customer. We want people to spend time at the bar so we can potentially help to make their drink better for them. We don’t send people to the ‘sugar island,’ or ‘shame island’ where they go to pour their sugar in an untidy area where garbage is overflowing, and sugar is everywhere. The moment when the customer goes to pour their cream or sugar, that’s a moment for us to connect with them, so we keep that process right at the bar with us”
When looking to the future, JP notes that it’s not about the scale but making a difference that constitutes success for the company.
“I don’t wake up in the morning and ask ‘are we going to hit such and such number of revenue?’ It’s really to grow the company enough to make a difference. Our goal is to be America’s coffee roaster. We try to make a difference with our employees and with our community, and that is really important to us. We do a lot of work outside to support our neighbors, a lot of philanthropy work. Coffee falls into a very strange place. We have coffee in third world areas because that is mostly where it is produced, and then we have coffee served in the wealthiest places in the world. It has a hold in each of the extremes. We make a commitment to our farmers, and they know that we are coming back to buy from them, instead of always looking for the cheaper source.”
The philanthropic nature and responsibility of La Colombe has always been important to the founders, ingrained into the brand from the very beginning.
“When we started La Colombe, we were really worried about the cafe experience and roasting coffee. When we went to Origin, we were made aware of the world of coffee, where the coffee was coming from, and how many lives it touched. So after the birth of La Colombe, we made sure to stay conscious of the world we were operating in. Coffee grows in very different places in the world than the places we call home.”
“I used to drink so much coffee, like double digits: 12, 14, 15 double espressos a day…”
La Colombe’s approach to the design of each new cafe is crucial to the brand. Five new La Colombe cafes will open soon in Los Angeles, the brand’s first on the West Coast. The floor plans, mechanics, and the ideas of how to move people in our new cafes in LA are very in line with La Colombe. The materials are the same, with lots of natural light. I love the area outside the cafes where people can be on the sidewalk under a canopy. We also incorporated a lot of plants, and we have a green wall. The weather in LA is so perfect, and it works nicely to have this open space with all of the green around you.”
Being in coffee for over 20 years, we were curious how the co-founder of La Colombe takes his coffee!
“I take a double espresso, that’s my favorite drink. I don’t add sugar, and I don’t add milk.”
“I used to drink so much coffee, like double digits: 12, 14, 15 double espressos a day, especially when we would work the bar by day and then roast at night. I’ve mellowed out since then; we have some really awesome teas so I drink a lot of herbal teas with turmeric, mostly to cut the caffeine intake, but then I will have more coffee around midday. I definitely used to push the envelope with how much caffeine you can take. Italians tend to be more civilized in the way they drink coffee. There isn’t too much caffeine in a serving, because caffeine content is really about how much liquid or water is in the drink to carry the caffeine. So, if you drink coffee the Italian way, you can have a few!”