Preview: Hobbs Coffee

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“We need a coffee shop in this town.”

That is what Stephen Iannicarri, co-owner of Swarthmore’s incoming gourmet coffee shop on 1 Park Avenue, Hobbs Coffee, said he heard most often from local residents; it’s the reason he and his two co-owners decided to locate here. Iannicarri, who will serve as supply chain manager and financial officer at Hobbs, and his partners, William Randall and Jason Hamill, hope to fill a gap that has existed for some time, both in the face of the Ville and in terms of what they feel should be a part of the quintessential small town experience.

by Brendan Work

Randall, head chef at Hobbs, plans to offer a selection of foods aimed at all palates and wallets. “We don’t want to stop the kid with a few bucks in his pocket from walking in, and we will also have options for the more sophisticated visitor,” he said. The menu, while not straying far from the traditional café fare of soups, salads and sandwiches, will feature ingredients from local farmers and suppliers, and have seasonal specials and new items on a regular basis. For example, he plans to offer a different grilled cheese sandwich every month, each with a different artisan bread and cheese. Randall is also extremely proud of his catering menu, for which he said “we will pull out all the stops, and let all of our experience really shine.” The drinks will not lag behind either, he promised.

Their head barista, Randall’s sister, who comes with experience as the manager of a local Brew Ha Ha coffee shop, will be able to work with a premium quality espresso machine, whose technology and model are the first of their kind in this country. Their coffee menu is not yet finalized, but Hamill, general manager and head of operations, says there will be both traditional and signature offerings.

One of his favorites will be their “S’more Latte”, with “crushed-up graham crackers, liquid smoke, fluff, and caramel syrup.” They recently decided on Chestnut Hill Coffee Company, a renowned local roaster, as their supplier. Despite the quality of the offerings, both Iannicarri and Randall emphasized that their prices would remain “ludicrously reasonable.”

In addition to the foods and beverages they will be offering, Hobbs is aiming to be “a center for all forms of local arts,” Randall said. With plans for displays of local artists’ works on the walls, live performances on the stage in the corner by both professional musicians and anybody who decides to play, poetry readings, open mic nights, and more, he hopes this will draw in as wide a variety of people as possible.

To complement the unique culinary offerings, Hamill has plans for some new entertainment options. A self-professed “tech geek”, Hamill is building a custom jukebox for Hobbs on which customers will be able to upload their own music or rip their CDs, and have them played in the shop. Hobbs will also institute a “play-as-you-please” policy, where anyone can “bring in their guitar, or poems, or stories, or whatever, and just perform for whoever is there,” Hamill said.

As a resource for students, Hamill also plans to have two computers set up for public use for those who do not wish to carry laptops around, and free WiFi for those who do. Additionally, they have been working with Dining Services and the college bookstore to see if either points or cash from the bookstore account on students’ cards can be used at Hobbs. They intend to remain open late, and have numerous events scheduled to “bring new life to the town,” Randall said. Hobbs will also be hosting events for Swarthmore’s monthly First Fridays.

The story of Hobbs began with co-founders Hamill and Randall’s travels around Europe after high school. The two, along with Iannicarri, had been good friends during their time in Garnet Valley School District, about 25 minutes away from Swarthmore. They traveled together for some time through France, Spain, and Randall’s native England, stopping along the way in numerous cafés and eateries, and gaining an appreciation of café culture.

“There was always this unspoken idea that we wanted to be doing this,” Randall said. Afterwards, the two returned to the US and to their respective careers. Randall worked in various kitchens, honing his culinary expertise, while Hamill held several management positions. Despite their ages (Hamill, Randall, and Iannicarri are 22, 21, and 20, respectively), all three have built up significant experiences in their fields.

One day in March of this year, Iannicarri stopped by the café at Terrain at Styers, in Malvern, PA, where Randall was working as a sous-chef. Iannicarri, a graduate of Pennsylvania State University with majors in Business Management/Marketing and Business Financial Services was interested in starting a business of his own, and wanted Randall to be involved. Randall immediately suggested a coffee shop, and they brought the idea to Hamill, who came on board quickly as well. As it turned out, Jason Hamill’s father, Robert Hamill, had recently sold his own company and was looking to invest in a startup, so the younger Hamill suggested they draw up a business plan and pitch it to his father. While the three entrepreneurs were thinking that this plan would take them anywhere from two to ten years to put into action, upon seeing their plan, their “angel investor,” as Randall put it, believed they could open up in six months. Immediately, the search for a location began.

The entrepreneurs explored several possible nearby towns, but all seemed to have an asking price out of their range, and were already saturated with similar establishments. Swarthmore was suggested in April by Randall’s mother, who also suggested the name for their business.

Though Randall had never heard come here before, a long drive to the latest CD of The Decemberists led him to corner of Park Avenue that he immediately fell in love with. His two partners agreed quickly, and the lease was obtained by early June. “We couldn’t be happier with the spot,” Randall said. “Even if we had the money or the chutzpah to open up in Chestnut Hill or Manayunk, I much prefer this spot. Everybody here is really supportive and we feel really welcomed.”

The reaction from Swarthmore residents has been overwhelmingly positive, Iannicarri said. Marty Spiegel, coordinator for Swarthmore Town Center, Inc., said, “We don’t have a place where people can simply sit for half an hour and chat.” Spiegel noted that with Hobbs and the three other restaurants opening soon, Swarthmore will soon have eleven eateries within the town limits. Drawing on the examples of Media, West Chester, and Phoenixville, among other nearby towns, he views this as heralding a new era for Swarthmore. “The revitalization of these towns has been based on their ability to attract restaurants to them, and that’s just what we have happening here,” he said.

Reactions from students at the college have been mixed. Some, like Daniel Chung ’10, are looking forward to having a place to get a bite to eat while studying, or just meet people for a cup of coffee. “Some people like the cafe atmosphere to study in, and Kohlberg can get too noisy and crowded sometimes,” he said.

However, others are more skeptical. Adam Rosenberg ’13 pointed out that no businesses in the Ville are permitted to remain open later than 1 AM, and said, “That’s just not late enough.” Others, like Mary Wiltshire-Gordon ’13, and Joslyn Young ’10, think there are “enough places to get coffee as late as we would want it here.” Young thinks the Ville does need new businesses, but would rather they be restaurants, like those slated to open in the next few months, than a coffee shop.

Hobbs also faces competition from the Ville’s other supplier of coffee and snacks—Dunkin Donuts, which is right across the street. Dunkin Donuts manager Sunil Patel said, “Whoever likes Dunkin coffee, and wants ice cream, will come here, and not there, and people have gotten used to us in the last three and a half years we have been in business.”

Hamill said that while there will be some competition, they may simply end up serving different audiences. He expects their prices for both food and coffee to be comparable to the analogues at Dunkin Donuts, but added that Hobbs would be focusing on serving high quality food and drinks. “If you want to spend a dollar or two more and come here, you’ll be getting food that was grown less than twenty miles away, and all made by an incredible chef with a real passion for everything he cooks—it’s quality, for not that much more.”

However, Patel noted that despite the vast differences between his offerings and those of Da Vinci’s Cafe, the prior occupant of the space now filled by Hobbs, when Da Vinci’s closed down, Dunkin Donuts’ revenue definitely spiked, suggesting that there will indeed be competition.

Hobbs was scheduled to open in August, but due to issues with meeting Swarthmore’s fire, health, and building code inspections, has had its opening pushed back to an uncertain range of dates between late October and early November of this year.

Check out Hobbs Coffee’s website for updates and a preview of their menu.

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