We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
Thirty years ago, the coffee scene in Philadelphia was pretty much nonexistent. If you wanted a cup of joe you hadn’t made yourself, you headed to a diner, or one of the few remaining automats. But Ruth Isaac had another idea. On Jan. 15, 1985, she opened the doors to Old City Coffee. It was a small, neighborhood cafe that focused on coffee above all else, the first of many that would follow the now-common model.
Even more novel for the time, Isaac had bought herself a small-batch coffee roaster. Every cup and bag of coffee she sold was made with beans that were roasted on site.
At the cafe, Isaac met tehusband Jack Treatman, and together they expanded the business. Within a few years, they opened an Old City Coffee stand in Reading Terminal Market, and took over the space next door to the original cafe on Church Street, more than doubling its size.
Sitting next to Treatmen as he sipped a piping hot cup of house blend, Isaac took the opportunity to look back on the last three decades. She recalled transporting sacks of green coffee beans in her station wagon, described how much of an effort she made to get a lease at Reading Terminal Market, and reflected on how what used to be called “imperfections” in a coffee’s taste are now sometimes considered interesting flavor notes.
Why did you decide to open a cafe?
I went to college at Washington University in Clayton, right outside St. Louis, and I fell in love with Starr’s Market. They were roasting coffee right there in the shop, and the flavor caught my attention. It was unbelievable compared to what I was used to drinking. After graduation, I got a job in Philly — I worked for [onetime City Councilwoman] Joan Specter, at her frozen pie company, among other places — but I knew I wanted to start my own business, so I decided to do the cafe.
How did you choose this location?
I looked everywhere from Princeton to Doylestown, but eventually settled on this spot [on Church Street in Old City]. It was originally an old industrial building — at one point it was a banjo factory, which I know because some enthusiasts from California showed up and asked to scout the basement for artifacts — but the neighborhood was changing and it had been rehabbed. It was an ice cream shop, for a while.
Did you get loans to start the business?
No. I just had a little seed money from family (for which they’ve been given free coffee for 30 years now). When I sat down with the landlord to present my business plan, he almost laughed at how little money I was planning to put in. It was a pittance. But there were no employees.
So you did everything yourself, from roasting to working the counter to cleaning up?
Yes. I had lots to learn.
Where did you get the green coffee beans?
There was a location in Secaucus that supplied all the big coffee companies. But it would cost a lot for them to send a truck down to me for just a couple of bags, so I used to drive up and get it myself. The guys would hook the bags and toss them directly into my station wagon.
How long did it take you to get good at roasting?
Probably around six months. There wasn’t a handbook that came with the roaster or anything. It was just trial and error. I know there were early customers who knew I didn't know what I was doing. If they bought something they didn't like, they just brought it back and I exchanged it. But I kept learning.
Was [your husband] Jack one of those early customers?
Kind of. He worked in the neighborhood, for his family’s textile business — Third Street was full of those businesses in the ‘80s — but he had always loved food. He came in the very first day I was open, but he said to himself, “There’s nothing going on here, I’ll come back.” It took five months. But after that he became a regular.
Do you remember your first date?
Of course. We went to the Cherry Tree Music Co-op in West Philly, and saw an a cappella group called The Bobs. We got married in 1988.
And then he joined you at the cafe. How did he tell his family he was leaving the textile business?
Times were changing anyway, and all those textile businesses were moving out of the neighborhood. Gentrification made the real estate too valuable. But Jack didn’t just walk out of that job and start here. He’d always wanted to cook, and so he sent himself to the boot-camp version of the Culinary Institute of America. After that he worked at the American Diner in Princeton. Also at the White Dog Cafe, under Kevin von Klaus and James Barrett (who now owns Metropolitan Bakery).
So when he joined you started serving his food and pastries?
Yes. Although I made pastries from the start, in my tiny oven — it was almost like an Easy-Bake.
Did you sell your coffee to restaurants?
No. Definitely not. We made a conscious decision not to go after wholesale.
But you did expand the retail side. When did you open the stand in Reading Terminal Market?
In 1988. I was the last person to sign a lease with the Reading Company [before the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority took over]. And it wasn’t easy to get it. David O'Neil was the general manager, and I drove hounded him. Eventually he said, “You know what, you’re driving me crazy. You won’t leave me alone, you really want to get in here. OK, but I’m warning you. It’s going to be a mess.”
It was a tumultuous time for the market?
The market was in disrepair, and the Convention Center was going to be built there. I was very involved with the Save the Market campaign.
What was that about?
Basically, what happened was that instead of closing the market and reopening it after construction, they kept it open. Built temporary booths for everyone, thanks to the “continuous market agreement” we worked out. Business really fell off when we were working out of those plywood booths in the middle of the construction zone, though. There was a little bit of compensation, but not much.
Since RTM reopened, has business there been good?
Without a doubt. We do most of our business there, at the main location. And three years ago we opened a satellite spot, which first was a gorgeous old wooden coffee cart, and now is a permanent stand.
OId City has changed a lot since you first opened here — there are dozens of cafes within just a few blocks. Has that affected your business?
It’s gotten pretty competitive. The cliché about business is that if your sales aren’t going up, they’re going down. Well, fortunately for us, it’s not going down, even if the growth has slowed. But we are doing fine. We just have to make sure we’re working hard, every day. Competition makes everyone better. Customers’ expectations are really high.
Customers are more educated about coffee now?
In the mid-'80s here, no one knew anything — you could serve anything and call it a cappuccino. Awareness has evolved, and our business has evolved with it. You have to be on your game. Now customers want you to identify the coffee, tell them how it was processed and if what certifications it has [designations like “organic” and “fair trade”].
What do you think about the whole “third wave” coffee movement, with pour-over cups and ultra-light roasting?
There’s room for everyone. We’re not trying to change our ways, though. We’ve always offered Chemex, if you want. And we still roast the same we always have, which is darker than some of the new roasters. I respect what they’re doing, it’s just not my calling in life. Back in the day, we used to taste coffee to look for imperfections. Now those “imperfections” are called “fruity notes.”
How many coffees do you offer?
Around 35 different ones, including blends and roasts. We talk about it a lot, that we don’t have to have so many coffees, but there are so many coffees out there, and each one has a different story. And customers get attached to a certain one, and if we take it away, they’ll complain. The best-seller is our Old City blend, which is made with a washed coffee that’s patio dried. It’s a very clean, spicy, full-flavored bean.
Has the Internet changed your business at all?
Not really. Back in the 1990s, one of our friends put Wi-Fi in the back, and we offered unlimited Internet for about a week. Now we limit it to one hour, with purchase. I get upset when we read the reviews and people are complaining because they get cut off after an hour.
How do you feel about online reviews? Do you read them?
I consult my daughter, who’s 24. She’s very measured about it. I always focus on the negative comments — I believe there’s going to be at least a grain of truth in any of them, and you can always learn something — so It’s Jack’s job to read them. Too much of a headache for me. But then again, our overall Yelp rating is 4.5 stars, so that’s fine.
Your coffee sells for just $1.90 a cup, which is a lot less than many other cafes.
Right. We’re not competing with those $3.50 brewed-to-order cups. Our prices are set so that we can be a comfortable part of your day.
Are you sick of coffee, after being around it every day for 30 years?
No way. I’ll never get sick of coffee.
How do you keep from getting sick of it?
I just wake up and breathe.
Old City Coffee
221 Church St., 215-629-9292
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday; 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
51 N. 12th St. (Reading Terminal Market), 215-592-1897
Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday