“That’s the secret — love and butter.”
Just a few minutes into our interview, William Randall, chef and owner of Hobbs Coffee, reveals his guiding principle. It’s not hard to imagine former Food Network star Paula Deen preaching this same maxim from behind the television screen, the words drizzling through her teeth, soaked in her syrupy drawl. But coming from Randall, the words ring simple and true, reflecting his overall approach to his now five-year-old business. While consistently playful and quirky, Hobbs remains at its core a place that focuses on creating high quality food in an easygoing, friendly atmosphere.
Since opening its doors in December 2009, Hobbs has been a mainstay of the Swarthmore community, equally popular among students and local residents. Despite having known that Hobbs’ Park Avenue storefront carried a history of failed businesses, Randall does not remember worrying that his location was cursed.
“I heard that [the former business-owners] were just socially rude people … I knew that if nothing else, we weren’t going to be rude,” said Randall.
Randall started the enterprise with two other partners, both of whom have since left the business on less than amicable terms. One partner was fired before Hobbs even opened, and the other made an exit a few years later. “My partner was crap and stole a lot of money from us three years ago,” said Randall.
Though Hobbs quickly found popularity in a community devoid of any other cafés, it took Randall a few years to find the right balance between meeting the practical needs of running a business and satisfying his creative ambition. “Originally the problem was that we were just doing so much and getting burnt out,” said Randall, “and then we started seeing things that worked out, got our hours down, got our menus down, got our brunches down.”
The creation of a weekend brunch menu was a game-changer for Hobbs, giving Randall more opportunities for culinary experimentation while building a pack of loyal customers. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, the usually relaxed mood at Hobbs becomes slightly less amiable as students, families and even a few professors vie for empty tables. Despite what appearances would suggest, Randall doesn’t keep his audience in mind when constructing his brunch menu, and relies instead on his culinary instinct.
“I know [the food] I like isn’t pompous and isn’t going to be weird and offensive to people,” said Randall. “Sometimes I do things that I think are funny but nobody else finds funny. We did lamb bacon on a Twinkie and I thought that was hilarious, but everyone hated that.”
Not quite a restaurant and not merely a coffee shop, Hobbs occupies unique territory both in Swarthmore and in comparison to the offerings of downtown Philadelphia. Randall maintains that it was never his intent that Hobbs would join the ranks of the sleek hipster-magnets that populate the city. “I don’t really like the modern coffee scene in general,” said Randall. “I find it dull and kind of up its own ass.”
However, not everyone agrees that Hobbs is entirely removed from the hip and trendy. Leah Gallant ’15 offered, “[Hobbs is] about as close as Delaware County gets to being Williamsburg.”
Ava Cotlowitz ’16, a part-time employee, describes that Hobbs has a “chill, cozy vibe,” which easily accommodates a diverse clientele. “How [Hobbs is] decorated and its décor isn’t so overbearing that it forces you to commit to one type of customer. So I think people can make of it what they want,” said Cotlowitz. Of course, it does help if you’re a fan of the indie heavyweights of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s not rare to hear Ian Curtis’ melancholic croon emanating from the Hobbs’ stereo, or to feel Stephen Malkmus’ jangly guitar puncture the air.
Hobbs’ unique atmosphere and off-campus location set it apart from other study spaces, and it has become an absolute essential to many a Swattie’s homework routine. “There are times when I really need a space that’s not Sci Center or McCabe or Cornell,” said Victoria Stitt ’16. “Everything is so monotonous and gray after two months here that to take away one of the study spaces that is a little bit not gray would be terrible.”
Swatties need not fear that Randall will be packing up shop to move Hobbs elsewhere anytime soon. In fact, Randall would like to eventually buy the property behind Hobbs in order to expand its kitchen, which would allow him to experiment more with in-house baking. “The stuff we do right now is out of a kitchen the size of a [Hobbs] table,” said Randall. “It’s insane what we do, and it’s totally masochistic, but I dig it.”
Randall is also hopeful that one day he will be able to expand his menu to include alcoholic beverages — currently an impossibility given the Swarthmore borough’s dry status.
“I think it’s a crime that there’s no drinking in this town,” said Randall.
Randall expects the college’s Town Center West project — a planned inn, restaurant, bar and bookstore that will be operated by the college, but open to the public — to make it more difficult for other borough businesses to acquire a liquor license. “I think the inn project is a stupid idea,” said Randall. “I think it’s going to be executed so poorly that it’s going to slow down the process of potentially getting a liquor license in town, which would probably go to [Hobbs].”
Randall expressed that if he were able to acquire the license, he wouldn’t take the responsibility lightly. “I will make [the community] proud,” said Randall. “I will do something for everyone that we can all enjoy, and nobody’s going to come down here and make an asshole out of themselves.”
But for now, Randall is sticking to what has made Hobbs such a success. On any given weekend, he’s sharing with you whatever he feels like eating — even if that means something a little weird.