La Colombe Torrefaction — Chicago, IL
This is the first time (and probably only time) that I am reviewing a corporate chain for this blog, but I feel that this company and the specific location are totally worth it.
La Colombe Torrefaction is an East-coast based company that started up in 1994 in Philadelphia by Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe Iberti. Since then, they’ve opened a total of only six stores—three in New York City (Soho, Noho, and Tribeca), two in Philadelphia (Rittenhouse Square and Dilworth Plaza), and their latest addition, here in beautiful, scenic Chicago (West Loop). With their small amount of stores, I consider them kind of the Peet’s Coffee and Tea of the East coast; they are growing, but to keep their focus on the quality of their coffee, they are growing only very steadily.
Their Chicago location opened their doors to the public only a couple weeks ago, on a sunny Friday afternoon. But months before they even opened, local coffee professionals were buzzing with excitement; Twitter and Facebook were inundated with La Colombe updates, various baristas in the area asking their followers and friends to meet up and check the store out. In fact, the first couple days the store was open, local cafe owners and their employees practically camped out at the bar with pens and notepads, taking notes on all of the great practices that La Colombe employs.
And who can blame them?
La Colombe, since 1994, has become one of the most exciting culinary coffee companies in the United States, garnering the praises of industry professionals and insiders for nearly two decades. Now that they’ve taken a big leap by expanding westward, into Chicago, I can only imagine that their praises are going to grow exponentially.
They are very well-worth all of the accolades, too—not only for the taste of their coffee, not only for their business philosophies, but for their ethics and goodwill. All of their coffees are “strictly Earth conscious,” ethically traded, and the company participates in the LCT Farm Assist Program. Furthermore, La Colombe is heavily involved in goodwill programs like Project Afrique, Fair Trade Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and Project 1,000 Wells among others. La Colombe Torrefaction is doing so much good in the world, it’s as though they’re just as focused on the world around them as they are on their business.
This is even more evident upon entering any of their six locations. Typically, when you walk into any corporate coffee chain, you can expect to find merchandise everywhere—on the walls, lining every shelf, on portable islands in the middle of the floor… Everywhere. Walking into a La Colombe location, on the other hand, one can expect to find an coffee/espresso bar, a pastry case, a few one pound bags of coffee, tables, chairs, and that’s it. There are no T-shirts, no mugs nor tumblers, no hardware—nothing that in any way will draw attention to itself as a corporate machine. Instead of merchandise, one can find literature about their charity efforts, or a pamphlet that informs their clientele about the history, views, and practices of the company.
From their website: “Enter any La Colombe cafe and one immediately notices what is missing—the merchandising and clutter of branded T-shirts, coffee mugs, home coffee machines and lunch foods; all items that distract from the coffee experience and slow quality service. Here in our cafes, first and foremost, the COFFEE and the CUSTOMER are the primary focus.”
I can attest to this on both accounts. Before I visited their Chicago location, I already knew about their resistance to selling merchandise in their stores and the reasoning for it; but actually going into the store and experiencing what it’s like to not be bombarded by merchandise was even more refreshing. I had a 20 minute conversation with the guys working the bar and not once did they attempt to sell me a Bodum French press or a tumbler with their logo on the side of it. Rather, we discussed the company, the coffee, and other local cafes.
Then came the real moment of truth—trying out the traditional cappuccino they made for me. The barista making my drink (who also happens to be the store manager) admitted up front that, even though he’s been in the coffee business with La Colombe for 17 years, he still didn’t know as much about coffee as other coffee professionals. However, I must say, that this just seemed like a bit of self-deprecation to me because he still knew more about coffee than a lot of the baristas I’ve met, and he poured me a perfect trad. capp. Creamy, just the right amount of foam, the espresso crisply cutting through the milk, and a rosetta leaf to top it off.
I was very pleased, all around, with my visit to La Colombe Torrefaction—the customer service was amazing, their coffee was really good, and I can really get behind their business ethics and philosophies. If you’re a Chicagoan looking for a new cafe to hang out at, a New Yorker looking for some high quality culinary coffee, or a Philadelphian looking to support a hometown coffee business, La Colombe Torrefaction is the place to be.