April and Elysa met at school in Wisconsin while studying fine art and music, respectively. After meandering through cafes and restaurants occupying various roles, they moved to Philadelphia to start something new.One year ago, they realized a long-time dream when they opened their specialty coffee shop, Menagerie Coffee. Find out more about the couple's journey into owning their own business below.
Interview & photos by Corinne Warnshuis.
What did you do before opening Menagerie? Tell us a little bit about your education and career paths.
Elysa: I went to school for music. I did my undergrad at Northwestern and then I did my masters at Wisconsin-Madison.
I spent a total of six years and a lot of money studying french horn. And when we came to Philly, I was teaching. I was part of the first year of Tune Up Philly (now Play On Philly) so I was the Assistant Director of that the first year. In the second year, the program split up into two groups. Instead of doing management, I started teaching and I did that for two more years.
And now we have a coffee shop.
April: I went to school for fine art, painting. When I first moved here, I was obsessed with getting a “real job,” which landed me cold-calling, trying to sell ads for the Hispanic newspaper... and I don’t speak Spanish.
E: She turned down all these coffee shop jobs
A: I wanted to get a “real job” — I was like I have to try this.
Were you both baristas or in the service industry before moving to Philadelphia?
A: All throughout college, I worked as a barista at a couple different places. And I was a lifeguard as well. We also served - we worked at a restaurant group that had two places. [Elysa] worked at one of them that was more of a brunch/lunch, and I worked at the French bistro. And then eventually Elysa started working there, too.
So when I got [to Philadelphia], I was like “Okay, I can serve. I know I can serve, but I don’t know this city.” And everybody freaked me out about it. Everybody tells you that Philly is rough, and I respect that. And I wasn’t interested in finding out the hard way.
I obviously had to find a job, but was concerned about going back into service —non-coffee-based service — where I would be out later. That was blocking for me. So I took this job selling ads, and it was a terrible idea and really, really funny.
After that, I got a job at Miel Patisserie for about six months, and I wasn’t very happy. And then I stalked Elixr while they were opening, and got a job there two days before they opened and started with them. In six months, I started managing there.
And that took us up to last June, when we signed the lease [at Menagerie] and announced that we were leaving our jobs.
When did you know you wanted to open your own coffee shop? And when did you decide to make it happen?
E: I think we’ve always wanted to open something —a coffee shop or a wine bar, a restaurant. Always. Since we met, we’ve always been gathering little details here and there of places that we like.
We love to go out to eat, we love to cook. We’re really into wine—April moreso than I am. And I think it’s always been a plan. As far as when we were like “Yes, we are doing this”...
A: October 2012
E: Yeah, so it was almost a full year before we opened the doors here.
A: At Elixr, I was pushing for a wine program there. I thought it would be a really unique opportunity to take a successful coffee shop that has plans for growth and try to expand it into more of a night-time casual atmosphere, but it became apparent that that was not part of the goal of the owner. He wanted to take more of a roasting future, which is totally fine and totally great.
But it was then that I read the writing on the wall, and I was like “This is my goal and this should be our plan, not forcing what we want to do on somebody’s else’s situation.”
So that was when we were like “Okay, we’re doing this.”
E: The original business plan was and is: coffee and wine. In Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia, that’s just really, really hard to do. As far as liquor licensing goes, it’s really expensive. We spent our whole lives’ savings opening up this place. As far as getting that license, it just wasn’t plausible for our first venture into this world.
Why did you choose this location in Old City?
E: We wanted a certain kind of coffee that is not in Old City, but seemed to be in every other neighborhood in the city.
A: The coffee community is small here, and so we all know each other pretty intimately. Everybody kind of knows everybody. We weren’t going to go in a place that overlapped territories of other shops, to be respectful.
E: It’s not about competition. If you plot all of the specialty third-wave shops on a map—and we did—Old City was the only void really.
What is "specialty third-wave"?
A: I guess the approach we take focuses more on a direct trade model. So everybody knows about Fairtrade and organic growing. Fairtrade meaning that everyone is paid well for their product or their produce, but don’t necessarily get to be recognized for that. Wages are fair and prices are fair—or seem to be a little more fair than bulk buying—but then third wave coffee builds upon that even further. It takes the Fairtrade model and morphs it into direct trade.
[Hypothetically] you own a coffee farm in Guatemala; I’m a roaster here in Philadelphia who is interested in working with small growers because we’re in specialty coffee. But I have to find you, and establish a relationship with you by traveling to your farm, which is usually remotely located. And we talk about what my goals are and how you grow, what kind of coffee you grow, and how it grows.
So it’s focusing on direct relationships where we bring the coffee in, I roast it, I put it on my pour-over bar, and your name is on the menu and it tells you what region in the country it came from; it tells you the tasting notes. It gives you the recognition as a grower. I am just the last hand that passes it onto the customer.
It’s similar to wine. Wine and even certain beers—you want to know where they come from. It’s growing. You go into Whole Foods and it tells you where the cattle is from, and what kind of food it ate, whether it was free range, etc. This is what coffee looks like when you do that to coffee. It’s just that the United States doesn’t grow coffee except for in Hawaii. If coffee wants to prioritize the growers and the terroir if you will, of the coffee, this is what it looks like.
Specialty coffee is sort of popping up all over the place, all over the world, as an homage to great coffee.
How does that relate to your overall philosophy and aesthetic of Menagerie?
E: Our aesthetic here at the shop directly correlates to the coffee that we’re serving: clean, sustainable…
A: It’s transparent —it tells a story. A lot of things you can just point to, and we can tell you a short story about it. And that’s not to romanticize any of it or to build it up.
E: It’s knowing where everything comes from: knowing where your coffee comes from, where your food comes from, knowing where this wood came from—a bowling alley in Delaware, the doors are from Germantown on the front of the bar— everything is interconnected in that way.
But I don’t have to tell you that. You’ll feel it the second you walk in the door.
A: But it’s not about a trend. It’s not about money.
It’s literally about re-using things that aren’t done [with] their life yet and repurposing things. It’s not to be trendy or hip—it’s to be responsible.
We operate under a promise to do no harm.
Because the coffee community is so close-knit, I wanted to ask if there are there many other women coffee shop owners? Is that a supportive community?
A: The whole coffee community here was started by two women: Betty Ortiz, who was from El Salvador, and her daughter Faith. They started Spruce Street Espresso. And that gave rise to Aaron Ultimo; he worked for them before he opened Ultimo.
You’ll sort of see the seasoned baristas who have been in it for a long time also worked at Spruce Street. In that sense, they were sort of the fairy godmothers of coffee in Philly. Very much so, I think Philly is indebted to those women. One Shot is owned by a woman, Melissa.
A: That was part of the impetus for us to build an identity around the shop. You know, we are women, there’s no getting around that and there’s no hiding that. We are a big presence in the shop because we’re here everyday.
We had nothing but support from the rest of the coffee community: Elysa was at Bodhi; I was at Elixr. We made a lot of friends from that. I don’t think anyone was surprised when we decided to open a shop.
E: My boss at Bodhi was the most supportive of anyone.
E: And I think the space is kind of feminine in a subtle way. I don’t think it’s obvious, but if you spent some time here and then walked over to Elixr, you’d be very overwhelmed. It’s gorgeous, beautiful, but it’s overwhelmingly masculine.
A: It’s sort of an extension of us.
What are some things you wish you knew, or what would your advice be to a barista who wanted to open her own shop?
A: Be patient.
E: And stay calm. I wish someone had said to me “Yes, we’re trying to serve this product and do no harm, and be clean and be friendly and elevate the product that we’re serving...but at the end of the day, it’s just coffee. So don’t get too worked up about it.”
You are now a part of someone’s ritual, which is a privilege, I think. But it’s just coffee. It’s just a moment in someone’s day. It’s simple.
As empowered women —you’re business owners who’ve done all this yourself— is it important for you to empower other women?
A: Yeah, I think so. I’m literally texting my friend right now. She’s sick of her job and she’s one of the smartest people I know. I’m telling her: open your own place.
She’s a strong, really intelligent woman who just needs to take that leap. And it’s a big scary leap, but I’m telling her “Do it. Just do it. It’ll be yours then. You can only gripe at yourself; you can only make it better and reap the benefits yourself.”
Challenge yourself. It’s the biggest challenge we’ve ever accepted.
E: Certainly, we are pro-women and super feminist, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that we empower women more than men. As far as our staff goes, we have some really talented illustrators, artists, theatre people —and as far as that goes, we’re equally supportive.
I think female customers invite us into their lives a little bit more. And we’re just early morning bartenders, so it is our job to sort of give advice along with the beverage.
Do you have any role models?
A: We definitely do.
E: My mom is awesome. My mom rules. She’s the best, and she taught me what hospitality is.
A: I had one for sure. She was the maître d at the restaurant that I served at. She was like the momma of the house, for good or for bad. Every single time I had a moment of doubt when I started managing, I would think “What would Susan do?”
E: Yeah, April’s next tattoo is going to be “What would Susan do?”
A: I was not with her for very long, I was with her for like six months and then we moved. She was just always composed, and if she lost her cool, something went wrong...something really went wrong. She wasn’t going to lose her cool on the floor, because that was inappropriate and you don’t do that. You knew you were going to have a meeting with her. And if it was good, you were going to be sitting down having a drink with her at the end of your shift.
She towed that line really, really well. And I sort of keep that in my mind here.
There have been strong women all my life that I keep on my horizon out here, and sort of pull from them as I need to.
E: And obviously Hillary Clinton. We love her.
Visit Menagerie Coffee at 18 S. 3rd St. in Old City, Philadelphia.