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Menagerie Coffee is a humble little spot in the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia serving Dogwood Coffee. The place is simple and warm without being boring, and the coffee execution is totally on point. April Nett and Elysa DiMauro are some of the most awesome shop owners and overall coffee women I’ve ever met. Their sense of balance and understanding of the key aspects of providing good coffee service really resonated with me. Sit in the shop for an hour and you can feel how at ease the customers and staff are with each other. Every drink that comes out is beautiful, the space is comfy, they’re completely ready to talk coffee with customers who want to get into it—it’s a lot of things a really great specialty coffee shop should be.
Dogwood Coffee has been proud to call Menagerie a wholesale partner since they opened in the Fall of 2013, but this summer was my first opportunity to visit the shop. In addition to our local market in the Twin Cities, we’ve gained quite a few wholesale partners out of state that are totally killing it. Most of my traveling flies over these shops and out of the country, so it was pretty special to get to stay in Philly for a few days and hang with April and Elysa.
Here’s the question everyone asks, what made you interested in coffee?
April: You gotta wake up every day, right?
Elysa: It’s a necessary vice. I went to music school and April went to art school and it’s just in the nature of those industries to also moonlight in some kind of hospitality job. I think that we both caught the coffee bug, or more importantly the hospitality bug then.
April: I think for us there’s also a foundational interest in eating and drinking that preceded that. When you’re eating and drinking there’s always the ability to improve. If you’re going to eat an apple you could eat an apple, or you could eat a better apple. And I think for me at least, that’s what happened with coffee.
You moved to Philadelphia in 2010 from Madison, Wisconsin. Did you do so with the intention of doing coffee?
Elysa: No, we moved here with the intention to not be in the coffee business. I had a job in music education, which was part of the reason why we moved back.
April: I was obsessed with getting a “real job,” which landed me something that was the most un-job-job I’ve ever had. But I think moving was a chance for us to start over, so no, we didn’t move here with the intention of even being back in service. The point was to get out of service. Elysa had something lined up and I wanted to try something new—give something else a shot.
I felt like it would be easy to leave coffee, but you sit in an apartment for so long and you’re like, “How do we meet people?” You begin to realize all of the advantages [of being in coffee,] the social aspect and just being part of a community, that constant influx of people around you. You don’t know how important it is until it’s gone. You take it for granted. You can choose your friends based on customers that come in, and the staff that you have, and the larger coffee community. So, we got back into it because we missed that. And it also sucks to have to pay for coffee at a grocery store, to be honest. It’s expensive!
You both worked in coffee here in Philly before Menagerie. When did you start thinking about doing your own thing?
April: About three years ago. We started planning for Menagerie in October the year before we opened–we opened in September of 2013.
Elysa: I think we’ve always wanted to open something of our own. Since we met, we’ve always liked to go to restaurants, and we liked to cook, so we’re always looking at things and talking about what kind of information can we collect from those experiences that we can use in the future.
April: It was a long-term project, something that began as one of those “We could do it better if this was my place, and this is how I would do it.” We just started one day. We had sort of been keeping a list, an idea book. We got serious about it, wrote a business plan and collected numbers. We started looking at places, got a realtor, and then it got real.
Did you choose this neighborhood for the shop or did you choose this space?
Elysa: Neighborhood, definitely. We sort of mapped out where all the other specialty shops were and this area [Old City] was really the only busy neighborhood that we thought had a lack of specialty coffee. There are other good coffee shops in this neighborhood but it’s a slightly different kind of coffee.
Why did you look out of state for a roasting partner?
April: There was a saturation of the local roasters here. A lot of Counter Culture at the time as well, there was big pressure to do that. Elixr was just starting to roast, but because I was their manager and I was leaving, there was already going to be mass confusion about it. We still get asked to this day, “Oh, is this Elixr’s shop?”
Elysa: Bodhi, too. All the time.
April: We say, “No, we’re just really good friends.” You can imagine, if those bags were not NEON bags and instead said “Elixr Coffee” people would then think this is an Elixr coffee shop. It was important to us, identity-wise, to differentiate. And also, why not? That’s part of our business plan and overall goal, to create exposure and to share. Part of hospitality is sharing, and so we wanted to share products with a community of people that had never experienced those options before.
What is the coffee scene in Philadelphia like?
April: I think the specialty coffee scene here is really well developed. Every single neighborhood has a specialty shop available to them. Roasters have good visibility here and they’re doing some interesting things. I’m happy we have them. Counter Culture has a lab here. It’s a pretty decent city for coffee. La Colombe, I mean, we have to sort of tip our hats to them for setting the foundation.
Elysa: You have to.
April: Yeah that obligatory “thank you”. They exposed the city 20 years ago to some of the beverages that will still serve today. And that idea of not having a menu, and serving one product, one kind of milk - removing tons of options, just serving coffee.
Elysa: They’re like big fish, though. I feel like they’re a totally different business altogether. Generally the coffee scene is really friendly. We’re all friends. It’s not super competitive in any way. It is definitely a little male dominated.
As is a lot of coffee, visibly, everywhere.
Elysa: So that’s, I guess, another part of our goal then [laughing]. To give a different vibe without it being obvious, being subtle. Customers gravitate towards it, fellow baristas gravitate towards it, and it’s different.
April: And to break down the sort of stereotypes that go along with barista culture and specialty coffee by just simple articulation. Being able to talk about a product, to do it in a manner that is not off-putting, but welcoming, and does due-diligence to the product but also to the needs of the customer and being real individuals at the same time. Break down this stereotype of being a snarky, sort of hipster-like person.
Elysa: It’s not a new idea, but there are three really important aspects - the space is probably the most important because when people walk in and it’s their first impression. Tasting, experiencing with their eyes first. The next most important thing is hospitality, treating people well. The third most important thing is what you’re serving people, the product itself. The product is super important but it doesn’t matter if the first two aren’t there or aren’t executed properly. Then the product goes out the window. Especially in a city like Philadelphia, especially in Old City. We have locals but also a lot of tourists.
April: In the beginning we didn’t know who our biggest demographic would be. There’s a lot people visiting and traveling, but we don’t get as many of those as we thought we would. But because we thought we were going to get a higher percentage of them, we knew were going to have to use our words and be even more thorough in our efforts to communicate what it is we did [at Menagerie] and how it’s different. We need to be available to answer questions in a way that is friendly and doesn’t get repetitive and frustrating.
Do you have any goals or future plans for here? Do you have any interest in roasting coffee?
Elysa: No, no. We’ve talked about it, but I don’t think so. I feel like we could do it, but it’s not what we want to do. We would like to invest in the neighborhood a little bit, maybe bring something else into Old City. We don’t want another Menagerie. It’s not, like, a brand. I think this place is a unique experience. Maybe take what we do here and do it somewhere else but with food or drink. I just think it’s important to invest in Old City. We’ve gotten to know the neighborhood so we know what it wants and what it needs. Plans, yeah. We’ll do something else. I don’t know when.
April: I think also like not roasting… We’re not doing it because we’re respectful of the people who do it well. We don’t need to start roasting in order to understand everything that goes into roasting. We have the utmost respect for you guys, you do it well and you’re traveling and sourcing. You’re constantly cupping, constantly sample roasting. You’re working with other people. The development to get to the stages that you guys are at is more than just roasting coffee. It’s everything but that, some days, I would imagine. I think that both of us are pretty good at saying, “We’ll let other people do that because they can do it better than us.” We don’t need to do it ourselves. It’s NOT one of those things where we’ve said, “Yeah we can do it - we can do it better!”
We love Menagerie Coffee. Visit them in Philadelphia!
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