Todd Carmichael and JP Iberti were at the top of their game, famous for their particular specialty: La Colombe coffee. Then each took up a hobby, creating another specialty. Soon, each became obsessed.
For Carmichael, it was distilling; he even set up a legal still - though he calls it "moonshining" - at La Colombe's roasting plant in Port Richmond. Meanwhile, Iberti revived his love of baking and set up an oven.
"On Fridays, we'd make food for the staff and JP would be baking bread and I'd send them home with rum," said Carmichael, the globe-trotting entrepreneur who also stars in the Travel Channel series Dangerous Grounds.
"We were getting very, very good at it, and we said, 'Well . . . we should share it with the world."
This month, on the 20th anniversary of La Colombe Torrefaction and on the verge of a major expansion, Carmichael and Iberti will open an enormous cafe at 1335 Frankford Ave. in Fishtown to serve coffee, baked goods, and food and drinks, and to sell rum. La Colombe's offices have moved into a back room. A second-floor tasting room allows demonstrations.
In addition to its two coffee shops here (the one at 130 S. 19th St. is about to reopen after a renovation, plus the one across from City Hall) La Colombe - already has 10 others elsewhere in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Seoul, South Korea.
And this is only the beginning: Carmichael said $28.5 million in new financing would help the company expand with 90 new cafes on both coasts, including Boston, Baltimore, and a swath of California from Los Angeles to San Francisco. "We picked up an additional class of shareholders," Carmichael said. And with the original 25-year lease on its 19th Street flagship now extended 15 more years, the company appears to be here to stay.
While some baked products will be sold at the coffee shops, the expanded cafe in Fishtown will be unique. The combination of bread, booze, and beans is not unusual, they say. "We look at the industry, and there are a lot of good cafes now," said Iberti. "This is the place we can show off the full range of the crafts of what we love. The spine is still coffee."
Iberti, 47, found the building in Fishtown a year and a half ago, near Master Street.
"Dirt floor," said Carmichael, 51. "Dead pigeons. No light, no nothing. I said, 'Dude. What are we doing here?' I had a hard time seeing it."
"I said, 'That's where your still can go,' " Iberti said.
" 'Yeah, but it's a swamp!' " Carmichael said he replied.
The partners, who seem to agree on everything and complete each other's sentences, pressed "go" on the project. They hired John McGrath, who baked bread at Parc, and pastry chef Angela Ferri, formerly of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.
Carmichael calls the 150-seater "JP's opus." (Adding excitement to the process was first-time fatherhood; Iberti and his wife, Leilani, had a girl two months ago.)
A marquee-type, light-up La Colombe sign hangs over the counter.
"I look at that as something from an 1800s traveling circus," Carmichael said.
"You're the traveling and I'm the circus," Iberti said.
Carmichael, married to singer Lauren Hart and the father of four children the couple adopted, is on the road often, whether for the show or for a wild adventure, like crossing Antarctica on foot.
The two hired Stephen "ESPO" Powers to create a mural that dominates one wall. Iberti's big-bellied bread oven sits near the front. Farther back, through glass, is Carmichael's copper Carl still.
The menu will include bread and pastries to go; a cheese board; maybe a roasted beet salad, some chicken pate, or a skillet (eggs and biscuits, roasted vegetable gratin, smoked pork chop and grits, or duck confit), or a tartine (mushroom, onion soup, smoked wild salmon, pan Catalan), or a sandwich with pancetta, or porchetta; plus wine, a few beers and spirits, including drinks made with Carmichael's Different Drum rum.
It all started back in 1987, when Carmichael and Iberti met in the mosh pit of a Seattle grunge bar. Carmichael, a central Washington farm boy, was roasting for Espresso Roma after working for the pre-Howard Schultz Starbucks for three years.
Iberti, a Frenchman who had apprenticed as a baker, was attending flight and engineering school and working part time for an Italian coffee company, Torrefazione Italia.
Over a card game, they kicked around the idea of going into business together. They moved forward in 1993 when Torrefazione's founders decided to move back to Italy.
Carmichael and Iberti raised money. Lured by a cheap warehouse building in Port Richmond and a long lease on a former hosiery shop and art gallery on 19th Street just off Rittenhouse Square, they settled in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is "walkable, but it's a city that had no food," Carmichael recalled. "There was nothing. You had the Garden, you had Le Bec-Fin. You had the Fountain and five million people. We thought, 'There's going to be a restaurant explosion.' We follow restaurants."
They named the operation La Colombe, after La Colombe d'Or, a cafe in Iberti's hometown of St-Paul-de-Vence.
Its owner loved food and art. That inspired Carmichael and Iberti.
"We don't want to just open coffee shops," said Iberti. "We just want to make people happy."