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La Colombe Opens Its First Boston Location This Week

Co-founder JP Iberti was in town last week to oversee the final touches

Rendering for La Colombe Bosotn

Any day now, downtown Boston will have access to a whole new range of caffeinated beverages. Philadelphia-based La Colombe is opening its first-ever Boston location at 745 Atlantic Ave. (in the Leather District), the latest addition to a large-scale expansion project from the company.

One of La Colombe's co-founders, JP Iberti, devoted significant time to developing plans for this new location.

"When I select a space I like to go in places where I feel like the neighborhood is a little bit underserved so you can really start kind of a bond with the neighborhood," Iberti said. "It's important with a cafe; it takes time to build."

"The way we design cafes is more of a linear way, rather than stamping them out. You're not going to see this cafe if we open two more cafes in Boston, three more; you're not going to see the same bar," he said. "Maybe you'll see a sense of flow and a sense of space, in terms of how light comes into the space, how we move people, how we want people to feel."

In Boston, this means a strategically placed ordering counter, space-maximizing tables and stools, and wooden banquettes, or what Iberti speculated folks might consider "industrial modern" design.

"For us, every cafe is kind of a continuation of the design. We try to make sure that people don't focus on how many stores we're doing," Iberti said.

When he gets asked how many stores he's opening, he says that really, he's opening one —€” the one he's working on.

Focus, transparency, and honesty

"You've got to focus on what you're doing now to be successful," Iberti said. That mentality carries through to the people who work for La Colombe.

"They have to have that in them, and if it's not true from what it comes from, then it totally shows through the staff. It has to be completely transparent and completely honest," Iberti said.

When La Colombe opens in a new place, Iberti said, he likes to spend time walking around the city, taking it all in.

He started out in Seattle almost 30 years ago, when he was 18 years old. When he decided to start a coffee company with his co-founder Todd Carmichael, it was the peak of grunge in Seattle, "good for music and coffee," Iberti said. They wanted to head east for their business, and the first city Iberti visited in 1993 was Boston. They also looked at New York City and Washington, DC before landing in Philadelphia, where they found a large enough production space to roast their beans and do retail.

When they first started, they focused on wholesale for hospitality, selling their beans to restaurants and hotels.

"Coffee is industrial"

"The first 13 years of La Colombe, we had one cafe." Initially, they did all their roasting out of that first location. Six months in, it was time for a change. "Coffee is industrial," Iberti said. "You make a lot of smoke, you make a lot of dust, moving the product around."

They had to move to a more industrial area but kept the cafe going.

When Iberti and Carmichael decided to open new retail stores, they looked to New York. While Carmichael focused on the wholesale part of the business —€” and some television projects —€” Iberti focused on retail development. He and one of the early hires to the company served as general contractors of sorts, designing the cafes, hiring HVAC and other specialists, and managing business inside the cafes once they opened.

"You really learn a lot from doing it that way," he said. "We developed everything from the way we anchor the bar, the way we sit, the way we flow —€” we spent hours."

Iberti said they wanted to give people a sense of space in the La Colombe cafes so each one feels welcoming. He said the mentality of La Colombe's retail efforts is simple: to create regulars.

There's no "sugar island" at La Colombe

Another part of it is to create a dialogue about the coffee. The espresso machines sit back behind the counter against the wall, instead of between the baristas and the customers. There is also a conspicuous absence of what Iberti calls the "sugar island," where customers get sent off to doctor their own drinks away from the baristas.

"This is the 15 seconds I might have with you and giving you your coffee, and it's an important transaction," he said. "This is important. This is where, as a customer, we feel that you really connect to La Colombe, and maybe we can have conversation, maybe it's just making sure you're taken care of, and that's why we don't send people away to the sugar station."

The cafes don't have menus either, for the most part, Iberti said. They occasionally put out signs describing certain specials, but the cafe prioritizes the exchange, making sure a customer gets a customized coffee and wants to return for more.

"One thing we do with coffee is we try to make people happy," Iberti said.

Savory and sweet treats from Cafe Madeleine

Boston's La Colombe will have a selection of food from Cafe Madeleine in the South End, Iberti said. That cafe's chef, Frederic Robert, will make sandwiches and flatbreads, as well as pastries and savory treats made with croissant dough.

"I always called our food the coffee window. It's the kind of thing that goes between meals," Iberti said. "We keep it pretty simple."

On the savory side, La Colombe will have 8-10 options, including four sandwiches, three or four flatbreads, and a few other things. On the pastry side, there will be the classic viennoiserie —€” croissants, muffins, scones. The offerings over the course of the day will change, with lighter fare featured in the afternoons (think cookies, cannoli, and more).

Iberti said La Colombe really started focusing on the cafes seven or eight years ago. In 2014, the company signed a $28.5 million investment deal that is fueling a big expansion with more stores in the works for new locations. Iberti said Boston was a natural progression for their business.

"Being a purveyor of coffee to restaurants and hotels has taught us to offer the full menu of coffee," Iberti said. "We have to offer it all."

Yes, there will be draft lattes

That includes its traditional quick-brew filter coffee, pour over options for in-season coffees (which take five to seven minutes to brew), espresso-based beverages, cold brew, and even La Colombe's new draft latte —€” a special cold latte made with nitrous oxide-texturized milk. The cafe will also serve an assortment of teas.

"I think there's a place for what we put our finger on, which is what I call kind of an urban cafe," Iberti said. "High density, urban cafe, where you want people to stay and where the service is fast, is honest, and you build a relationship with your barista."

UPDATE, 4/27: After some delays, La Colombe plans to open tomorrow (Thursday, April 28).

[Image: Rendering of La Colombe in Boston/Facebook]

La Colombe (Leather District)

745 Atlantic Ave, Boston, MA 02111 (857) 317-5340 Visit Website