Career au Lait
The coffee market is growing faster than you can say, "tall non-fat carmel macchiato, please!" Marianne Breneman, owner of Mt. Adams and Riverside Dr.-based Koka Coffee, and Linda Marshall, owner of Newport-based Mammoth Cafe, are taking advantage of the growing number of Cincinnatians calling for a cup o' joe.
Although their shops are local, they both drew their inspiration elsewhere. For Marshall, it was the numerous cafes lining the streets of London. Breneman was having the "what would you do if you could" conversation with friends from New York City where both parties realized owning a coffeeshop was on both their lists.
"Our neighborhood [on Riverside Dr.] was sorely lacking in services for residents, [so] we decided to do it here in the East End," explains Breneman. "A year or so later, our business partners relocated, we bought out their half and kept going."
The East End Koka opened in early 2006 at 2726 Riverside Drive. In June 2007, Breneman opened a new, larger Koka in Mt. Adams after Towne Properties tracked her down and offered a too-good-to-be-true opportunity to set up shop in their Mt. Adams prime real estate.
Marshall sees a bright future for the other side of the river, which is why she decided to take root on Monmouth St., the main drag in Newport. "Monmouth street is a busy commuter road into downtown Cincinnati," she adds.
While one would think a local coffeeshop owner cringes at the sound of "Starbucks," Breneman does quite the opposite. "We're grateful that a place like Starbucks exists because they really paved the way for independent shops like us to make it," she says. "The 'coffee culture' was made mainstream by them and for that we are appreciative."
However, there are many things that make these local shops different than those of the cookie cutter variety. For one, they have mascots, and cute ones at that. Mammoth is, you guessed it, a mammoth. "It goes nicely with the slogan 'Proof that great food and coffee are not extinct!'" Marshall says.
Koka's mascot is the Kokopelli, a Native American symbol of abundance and good fortune. "We just shortened the name and slightly altered the spelling to 'Koka,'" Breneman explains.
Mammoth Cafe's unique menu items and live music each weekend also makes them different. For Koka, Breneman says they make every drink "to order" and never re-use or re-steam milk "…a practice that other places do," she warns. Koka uses a manual machine that requires the barista to pull the espresso shots by hand. "We think it tastes better this way so we train our employees a lot before they ever make a drink for a customer," Breneman says. In addition, Koka uses local bakeries for their pastries and baked goods. "Our sandwiches are made fresh on site with recipes that we have tested with our manager, who does the cooking," she adds.
And food is a key factor in this coffee equation. In fact, Marshall's one piece of advice for anyone looking to start their own coffeeshop is to complement the coffee with great food items. And if you are looking into that field, she says to be prepared for the long hours and "expect the unexpected" when it comes to learning about coffee and coffee drinkers.
Breneman's piece of advice? Do the unexpected. "[Get] away from the large chains. Cincinnati has several wonderful indy coffeehouses and I think they deserve to be tried – Koka included. The large chains will exist whether you patronize them or not. The little ones need customers to exist," she says. I can't tell you the number of times people say 'I hope you'll be here for a long time!' and our standard answer is 'If you keep coming and you keep telling people about us, we will be!'"
Click the play button below to watch a Webcast with Koka Coffee owner Marianne Breneman as she takes you on a virtual tour of her coffeehouse.