Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Interview with Philecia Harris of Coffy Cafe, new crepe place coming to 14th and Park

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Coffy Cafe, a new crepes and coffee shop coming to the Samuel Kelsey building on 14th just north of Park (across from the Tivoli.) Recently I spoke with the owner, Philecia Harris, about herself and her plans.

Sounds neat. Also interesting to see her experiences as a small business: she writes that the only space she could afford in DCUSA, even with the set-aside, was under the escalator.

How did you get the idea for the shop?

Hmmm, where do I begin: not just an idea...a journey.  I grew-up around family businesses, my grandfather's fish 'n chip shop, aunt's beauty shop, Mom's fashion and word-processing businesses, Dad's Amway.  I always thought it would be nice to have my own neighborhood place some day.  In '99 a friend asked me to open a creperie with her, it wasn't the right time for me but since then I've had crepes on the brain.   I'm always on the lookout for homey cafes, where people chat instead of work on computers.  As teaching got more hard-core and political, I decided it would be a good time to make the jump. Originally, I thought I'd work at a cafe but in the end, decided to "rub my pennies together" and try to create a place of my own.

Can you tell us a little more about what it will be like inside?
Back in the 90's I visited a little cafe in Montreal that had a fire place and funky winged-back chairs.  I thought, if I ever open a cafe, this is what it will be like: my living room.  The Coffy concept comes from my living rooms and kitchens.  I've always had a love of kitchens with 1940-65 appliances and furniture and that grew into a taste for 1960's touches throughout my home.  Coffy will have the 1960's/70's white tulip tables, some white Mod chairs and touches of Lucite, near the front .  Towards the back there will be more mood lighting with floor lamps, arm chairs, couches (just found a tufted white vinyl couch from the 50's).  I'll add my own white with powder blue vinyl kitchen set somewhere in the middle.  The walls with have the 60's/70's movie posters: Barbarella, Mod Squad, Avengers and of course the Pam Grier icons, Cleopatra Jones and Coffy, who inspired the name.  The space is 1500 sq/ft with 15ft ceilings and I love the big windows.

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I'm currently a DC educator in SE.  I've worked in a Boston Charter School, the DC public schools, neighborhood public libraries and with various community organizations throughout the years.  I'm from New England but also have roots in DC.  The cafe will be my second business, my first was custom printing and hand painting t-shirts for craft stores and festivals.  I grew up in close knit military communities with layovers and visits to "grandma's house" in DC and New England, with their corner stores, ethnic bakeries, deli's, barbershops, community centers etc.  It is my hope that I can create a space that will add to the sense of neighborhood and community even in the Tivoli center which is starting to feel a bit overbuilt for the neighborhood feel.

Did you look anywhere else for a location? Was it difficult to find one? Yeah, it's pretty rough out there, it's been a couple of years of searching and waiting.  Residential realtors work quickly but commercial realtors can take months to respond to an offer.  From the beginning  I was priced out of H St., 14th and U, got no response from a number of locales while other places wanted a cafe but weren't quite right for me.  I bid on a spot near Eastern Market but they chose another business, started negotiations with Allegro Apts just up 14th--first convo they seemed exited but one day they just stopped responding.  I was told I had "my ducks in a row" and a solid business plan.  There are some small business set-asides in the big CH mall (DCUSA) but the spaces I could afford were under the escalator which worried me.  Then one day I saw the sign in the window at Kelsey apartments, they accepted a number of small business applications and after a great deal of vetting they chose me :-).

Are you going to make the items in the store or are they from somewhere else?
The crepes will be made upon request using large round crepe flats and people will watch their crepes being made from behind a plexiglass sneeze guard.   While I may be looking for a baker to provide some specialties,but in-house I will re-create some family recipes for a few select cup-cakes, cookies, pound cake and my own red velvet cake.

When do you hope to open?
Hope is the operative word.  Maybe this summer.  I'm waiting for mechanical drawings to be finished.  Will be taking all the plans downtown to the DRA hopefully this month.  I'll have to go through the process of pre-inspection and permits(May/June), light construction(June/July/?Aug), then final zoning and inspections (?Aug).  Cross your fingers!

Tell us about the name.

I was looking for good name for a 60's spot.  I thought of Pixels with a 60's TV in the logo, Chat Noir (black cat in french) for crepes with a cat woman in the logo.  Then one day just hit me over the head.  Who could resist the double entendre of coffee and Coffy, which coincidentally represented a Mod, B-movie heroine.

3 comments:

Jeff said...

This sounds absolutely amazing! Thanks for providing insight into the process as well -- unfortunately, given DC's notoriously difficult permit process, I worry that you will have more frustrating moments ahead. But it will all be worth it in the end and I am confident that your business model will THRIVE in this area, and attract a very wide ranging clientelle. Can't wait to try the crepes and homeade cupcakes, cakes, whoopie pies (I hope :)), etc. Hot chocolate please too!

Interesting re: the Kelsey homes being so picky, considering that they've had a number of vacancies (and apparently, now one more with the liquor store leaving) for what seems like forever (in particular the prime corner space where the furniture store used to be). It is upsetting that folks are eager to open small businesses in the area, yet are frustrated by landlords who apparently would rather have properties sit vacant for years and years.

DCUSA is even more annoying, but of course, we already knew all about that. What was billed as something that would benefit local entrepeneurs turned out to be a fiction. Again, another place where space has sat vacant for year after year despite local entrepeneurs eager to utilize it, because rents are set at an unrealistic level that only national chains can ever hope to afford. When IHOP is considered a local business, you know it is hopeless.

For all the criticism Dontelli receives from, ahem, certain notorious neighborhood curmudgeons, you gotta give them this much: at least they fill their retail spaces up, in many cases with local businesses, and even when deals fall through / businesses go sour, they replace them fairly quickly.

Anonymous said...

Meh, no commercial restaurant/cafe working/managing experience. I wish her luck, but it's a brutal world out there.

GforGood said...

Sounds good!

In Kelsey's defense: I think its ultimately good they too make sure the tenants have a viable business plan and don't just rush to anyone who's interested.