Interview: Coffee and Conversation With Menagerie Coffee
In the making of our city guide, we rounded up some of our favorite restaurants, shops, and spaces in our home city of Philadelphia. We also sat with some of our like-minded friends and collaborators and talked shop. Here, we take a break from tea and catch up with April Nett and Elysa DiMauro, co-owners of coffee shop and community meeting place Menagerie Coffee.
It is hard to put a finger on what makes a truly great cafe. Is it the wafting scent of buttered croissants and steamed milk that grabs your attention as you stroll past open doors? Is it the hiss of steam accompanied by the low din of plates and conversation punctuated by the occasional whir of a grinder? Is it the smiling, familiar face of your favorite barista, already prepping your drink as you walk through the door? Whatever that elusive trait may be, after one visit to Menagerie Coffee in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, it is clear that they have it.
Cafes have always been about more than good coffee. They are the meeting place of thinkers and ground zero for their artistic movements. They are the morning bastions of social lubrication, the ante meridiem equivalent to the neighborhood pub. On a sunny Tuesday in June, we spoke with co-owners April Nett and Elysa DiMauro over oat milk lattes and M&M cookies for their take on business ownership, cafe culture, Philadelphia, and their upcoming second location.
This interview has been edited down for length and clarity.
Rikumo: How did Menagerie come to be? What is your origin story?
Elysa: When we met, April and I were studying and living in Madison, Wisconsin. April was studying art, and I was in grad school for music. At that time we were both working in hospitality.
April: We worked in and out of restaurants and became obsessed with coffee. We moved to Philadelphia in 2010. Elysa had a job in music and also worked at Bodhi Coffee. I started with Elixr Coffee around when they were established. I stuck with them as a manager until we opened here in September 2013.
To sum it up, we realized that when you get to a point where you love what you do, and you realize you can make a career out of it, you can only run other people’s cafes for them for so long.
E: We got to the point where we were like, ok we can do this.
So you took a leap of faith?
E: Yes! It was a little terrifying.
A: We were either going to travel to Portugal, or we were going to open a cafe.
Why Portugal? Did you ever end up going?
A: I went to wine school, and that was the place I wanted to be. Still haven't been there, but we hope to go soon.
What does it mean to you to be a cafe?
E: It can be a lot of different things, but it always comes back to people. Some mornings you can hear a pin drop because people are on their computers. Other days, it’s really loud and rambunctious. The space decides what it wants to be. I feel like a broken record when I say “it’s all communal seating, please feel free to share tables”. We really encourage that here. We want people to make friends.
Do you know of marriages or friendships that have sprung up here?
A: Yes, we call them Menagerie miracles. We live in the neighborhood, so we see a lot of people outside of this space at the gym or at a restaurant. You realize that if we have those experiences with customers, they also have it with one another. Cafes foster this place of interaction and community.
Two regular customers who are actually here right now invited us to their book club. We’ve been reading with them for three years now. They’re here every day and are always making friends with med students or travelers.
E: We’re really grateful for that and for our customers who are like that. We’re so grateful for our customers that support us every day.
A: Some people come in twice a day! We have one customer that is here all the time. He and his wife each come in every day, but not always together. Like, his wife will come in in the morning and then five minutes later he’ll come in with his daughter after the gym. It’s special to think that our shop is included in someone else’s day.
How did you settle on Old City?
E: When we started, we printed a map with all of the coffee shops, and we saw an opportunity in Old City. Old City was this open expanse. We plotted it, saw it, and dismissed it because we honestly didn’t come to Old City. It took us a while to seriously consider it.
A: If you were to read our original business plan, we made the assumption that our customers would mostly be tourists, but we didn’t realize that there was a whole tech community in Old City. A lot of startups have their offices in the neighborhood. We learned what Indy Hall was. We are so grateful for Indy Hall. Weblinc, pretty much all of N3RD St, these were the guys that really made it possible for us to be open for business. They are fueled by coffee.
Being in Old City (home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall), do you notice any differences between regulars and tourists?
A: Experiences with tourists are fleeting. They’re mostly looking for a place to sit for a while. We want to set them at ease and create a safe and welcoming environment.
E: It seems really simple, but it’s actually a really special thing to welcome people and give them a great experience.
When you opened, did you feel any friction as a female-owned business?
E: No, luckily it’s not something that we had to really contend with, but it’s definitely something that we were acutely aware of. The first specialty coffee shop in Philadelphia [Spruce St Espresso] was owned and operated by women. It’s no longer there. It was where Greenstreet is now.
A: Aaron Ultimo came from Spruce St. Espresso, and a lot of people that are still in the industry that don’t necessarily own shops of their own graduated from there and came up through the echelon of Philadelphia coffee. That place kind of gave way to a lot of important careers. The Philadelphia coffee scene is an amazing community, and it’s only gotten bigger since we started. When we started, there were just a handful of shops. We are all friends. We work together. The competition is there, but it’s a healthy competition.
How is oat milk going? I've noticed a lot of cafes are making the change.
Do people ever get upset that you don’t serve any other milk substitutes?
E: Sometimes, but it’s all in how you present it.
A: Honestly, it’s so much better for the environment. We can’t be a self-respecting coffee shop that engages in third wave or direct trade practices with roasters and their growers/producers and offer a product like almond milk which uses so much more water. To turn a blind eye to that seems a bit tone deaf.
E: Plus it tastes great!
What do you think will be the next trends in coffee?
E: Right now, the coffee community is getting more into flash brew instead of cold brew, but I personally prefer cold brew. Nitro and draft coffee is great, but I think the industry is going in many different directions. I love the idea of micro-roasters and roaster cafes where you can buy their retail coffee but they don’t do online sales or sell to other shops. It’s really popular in Scandinavia.
Do you have plans to get into roasting?
E: Long-term? Yes. Are we ready now? No, but I trust our ability to taste and think we have something valuable to add. We would love to go vertical and bring everything in-house. Sometimes people tease us and call us Menagerie cookies because April bakes cookies here, but it’s only because we’re trying to in-house as much as possible.
Did you make the M&M cookie I just ate?
A: Yes! It’ just an old-school thing. Like if you go over to Franklin Fountain, they in-house everything.
What’s next for Menagerie Coffee?
A: We are opening a second location at the Bourse food-hall at the end of summer. It’s been an amazing project so far, and there are a lot of great vendors taking part.
A: Also, if the Pennsylvania liquor laws ever change, we might consider adding a few taps here.
So like an all-day cafe?
E: We like all day cafes, but awesome places like Hungry Pigeon and Res Ipsa (featured in the Rikumo City Guide), they have full kitchens. If we did it, it would probably be more snack-oriented.
A: Kisso is really great sushi. If you go sit at the bar and talk to them.
E: In South Philly, I really like ITV. I was lucky enough to have a dinner at Laurel, and that was amazing. Our friends just opened Cadence. They’re also from Madison. It’s a reasonably priced BYOB and it’s incredible. We had a great meal there.
Thanks to April and Elysa for talking with us and sharing their cafe! Find Menagerie and many more on our city guide, available for pick up at Rikumo and at Menagerie Coffee (or read it in its entirety at the link below!).