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Philly's coffee scene is growing up, getting bolder

Many of Philadelphia's major coffee players in recent years have grown from one-off shops to mini-empires.

An espresso tonic coffee at Herman’s in South Philadelphia.
An espresso tonic coffee at Herman’s in South Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID SWANSON

At Ultimo Coffee's new Rittenhouse Square location, plenty of regulars from Ultimo's other outposts stop by and say hello, but the cafe at  the corner of 20th and Locust also draws more tourists than ever before.

"We're in the middle of it all, instead of on the fringe," said owner Aaron Ultimo, who opened the cafe last month. "We're a block from Vernick. Shake Shack is down the street. It's different. And it's fun to be a part of this."

Opening the Rittenhouse location checked off a goal that Ultimo and his wife, Elizabeth, had long held for their brand — to put down roots in Center City, along with the company's other locations in South Philly and Graduate Hospital. It followed the 2016 launch of Ultimo's roastery, another plan years in the making.

Like Ultimo, which opened its first location in 2009, many of the city's major coffee players in recent years have grown from one-off shops to mini-empires. Increasingly, small-batch operators are roasting their own beans and leading extensive wholesale operations, and in many corners of the city, independent coffee shops — along with restaurants  — are reinvigorating neighborhoods. Some roasters have begun marrying coffee and food through collaborations, such as ReAnimator Coffee's partnership with restaurant Res Ipsa, and the full restaurant and bar menu offered at La Colombe's expansive Fishtown coffee house and rum distillery.

"When we opened, I think I was a purist," said Ultimo, who also handled the coffee program at Queen Village's Hungry Pigeon restaurant when it opened. "I was so focused on doing one thing and doing it well that I didn't want to diversify. But the coffee world has matured, and there's something great about being able to go somewhere where you know you can get a great cup of coffee and a great egg sandwich."

In addition to launching its partnership with Res Ipsa, Fishtown's ReAnimator coffee expanded in 2014, moving its roasting operation into a larger warehouse in Kensington, where it also opened a cafe. The company this year is planning a third outpost in West Philadelphia.

Elixr coffee, founded in 2010, is in the final stages of building a roastery and cafe in the Goldtex Building at 12th and Wood Streets that will include a coffee tasting bar. In addition to cafes in Center City and University City, Elixr runs the coffee program at Double Knot, the trendy 13th Street cafe/izakaya that opened in 2016.

Rival Bros. coffee opened its newest location on Passyunk Avenue in November. It was the company's second location to open last year, and its third since 2014. Jonathan Adams, a former chef who cofounded the company as a coffee truck with friend Damien Pileggi in 2011, said he planned to open multiple cafes first, but his restaurant connections led to a booming wholesale business.

"It wasn't our intent to grow that rapidly, but the wholesale thing took off underneath us," he said. "I realized I had an opportunity to step on it, so I did."

They moved the roastery to a space in the Global Dye Works factory in Frankford, then outgrew it so fast they had to move to a space in that building that was four times the size.

"We knew we wanted to have multiple cafes, but our 10-year plan turned into a five-year reality," Adams said. "We're eternally grateful to our regular customers. Some come in five, six times a week. And when I first discovered La Colombe, that's what I did."

Other companies have moved past traditional roasting/cafe operations. Quaker City Coffee, which began last year with two cafes and an online store, has built into its business model a mission to create job opportunities for former inmates. Plenty Cafe, which opened its third, largest location in Queen Village in late 2016, offers wine and beer as well as an extensive selection of digestivos and aperitivos. La Colombe founder Todd Carmichael  said  industry data show that the company's canned coffee, introduced last year, has become the nation's fastest-growing grab-and-go coffee.

At Herman's, which opened in August in an unassuming garage in South Philly, co-owner Mat Falco roasts his own single-origin beans, serves lattes with house-made syrup, and offers a menu of cold espresso "cocktails" made with tonics that come in flavors like pho, grapefruit, and sage. He also makes a caffeinated spin on old fashioned cocktails by pouring espresso over ice and adding bitters.

"Cold-brew coffee really took off, and I think this is a progressive next step," said Falco, also owner-publisher of Philly Beer Scene magazine. He opened the shop with his girlfriend, food writer Amy Strauss. "There's more flavor here, a little less carbonation."

Falco, who also hosts food trucks and pop-up restaurants for Sunday brunch, said he wanted Herman's to appeal to the typical coffee drinker as well as those seeking fancy pour-overs.

"I didn't want to take a purist approach; I wanted to have fun," he said. "A Dunkin' Donuts customer can come in here and get a vanilla latte. Only here, we make it with fresh syrup and beans we just roasted."