Peering through the plate-glass windows of the new retail space on Market Street in West Philadelphia, Jiaqi Wu thought she was looking at just another coffee shop in a town brimming with them.
Then she reconsidered, thinking they must be serving something extraordinary, given the name on the door: The Creative Café @ Replica.
"I was wondering if the coffee itself was creative," recalled Wu, a Californian pursuing a master's degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Stepping inside the shop only confounded her more.
"What is that for?" she said she asked a barista, inquiring about the service counter off to the right and, behind it, a glass office where people worked at computers.
The answer she got: for printing and design services.
Wu had wandered into what owner Keith Leaphart believes is a first for the city and the country: "If Kinko's and Starbucks got together and had a really pretty baby, it would be us."
The hybrid print shop/café at the University City Science Center opened Dec. 2. It is the first of the "prafés," if you will, that Leaphart plans to introduce in several metropolitan areas in the next two to three years.
"Within a year or two, I believe there will be other copycats," Leaphart said. "We'll be the first and the best."
And thus begins another chapter for the seemingly inexhaustible entrepreneur/physician/civic activist who, at 38, is now out to infuse the printing business with a jolt of creativity - and caffeine.
"We don't want to be considered a traditional, boring print shop that is going by the wayside," said Leaphart, who traces his entrepreneurial vigor to selling candy to classmates when he was 11.
He would go on to earn a medical degree and an MBA from a joint program at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and St. Joseph's University.
While still in school, Leaphart bought a commercial cleaning business with his sister and brother-in-law - and became a customer's protégé.
In 2009, that person's financial help would enable Leaphart to buy what was then a 30-year-old printing business on 18th Street in Center City called Replica. The investor was Suburban Cable founder and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest.
Lenfest is now one of the owners of the company that publishes The Inquirer. Early last year, he stepped down as chairman of the Lenfest Foundation; Leaphart is completing Lenfest's term, which ends in June 2015.
As a print-shop owner, Leaphart would spend the first couple years rebranding what was a cramped, grimy business whose physical aesthetics belied its high-caliber work, he said.
What became Replica Creative he moved next door to a bigger space with a more cutting-edge, high-tech look, including an airy design area with homemade, flashy wall art and huge projectors.
In this digital age, the competition is not the local print shop, Leaphart said, "but Apple and Google. We need to be competing on that level."
Downstairs is the production equipment, able to turn out a broad run of products, from annual reports and banners to wedding invitations and wall graphics.
Leaphart hosted after-hours events for more exposure. Business grew 40 percent the first two years, he said. New clients included Comcast and the city's Welcome America summer festival.
Revenues last year were $1.7 million; the payroll, 18 employees and counting. A willingness by Lenfest to extend the repayment terms of his $600,000 loan enabled Leaphart to afford the expansion to University City, where considerable development is imminent.
Adding coffee to the menu of services there was "another opportunity to introduce our brand," Leaphart said, estimating that the Creative Café @ Replica attracts about 200 walk-ins a day looking for coffee and comfort foods. Though most might not be placing a print order, "all of them will have printing needs sometime," he said.
Agreeing that Leaphart is on to something smart is William Mignucci Jr., president of gourmet grocer and caterer Di Bruno Brothers, a Replica Creative customer now providing some of the food for sale at the new café/print shop.
Calling Leaphart an idea guy who "doesn't just talk about ideas, he brings them to a reality," Mignucci said: "I didn't have to think twice to recommend him to our coffee partners at Counter Culture, as well as trust him with carrying some of Di Bruno Brothers' gourmet-to-go offerings."
The Creative Café @ Replica is open weekdays only, 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Leaphart envisions an eventual 24-hour operation, not that he's expecting it to become popular for date nights.
"But it could be productivity night," said the multitasker, who mentioned that he soon will be launching a custom wallpaper line through Replica Creative as a dot.com business, to "put us on the national stage Day 1."
Then Leaphart was off to Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, where he moonlights as a doctor two nights a week.
See Keith Leaphart talk about the ideas that went into his Creative Cafe @ Replica. www.inquirer.com/business
Read about another University City endeavor: A 28-story residential and retail project. www.inquirer.com/3601market