Friday, October 3, 2003

Small, quaint, relaxing place lures coffee aficionados

Maggie Downs

Rick Monsipapa knew his coffeehouse couldn't have a stained $10 sofa in the corner.

After all, he's dealing with suburbanites.

"It can't be like a Clifton frat house," he said. "If you're selling a $4 cup of coffee, you have to make the place inviting."

That's why you won't find anything that looks like the coffeehouses of my youth at A Coffee Affair in Olde West Chester. Instead, the decor is mauve and beige, with an elaborate tin ceiling above and the aroma of roasting coffee beans filling the air. Nary a cigarette butt, black turtleneck or bad poem about pain in sight.

No, this is a different kind of coffee shop. More plump sofa, less greasy vinyl booth. More locally crafted pastries, fewer day-old doughnuts. More Martha Stewart, less Jack Kerouac.

The buzz is getting around. A Coffee Affair is quickly becoming the suburban answer to Starbucks.

"The people from school come over here, like, every day," said Lakota West student Emily Housley, 17. "It's cool."

Self-described "coffee fiend" Monsipapa, 41, started the business when he was unable to find a good cup of joe in his neighborhood. So he educated himself about coffee. Came up with a business plan. Bought a roaster. And that's when things really started to brew.

Now it's rare to find Monsipapa far from a bean, cup or pot.

Almost two years into it, he is expanding with locations in West Chester, Centerville (near Dayton) and a soon-to-be-open store in Liberty Township.

Within the next five years, he expects to have about 15 A Coffee Affair units in this area.

His long-term business plan (along with his partners - wife Tina and church friends Kyle and Danya Plumley, all of Liberty Township), includes contracting, catering, wholesaling to other coffeehouses and licensing the A Coffee Affair trademark.

It's a popular idea.

Mason-based Victor Kidd, founder of Kidd Coffee, has been making similar strides with his cafe business.

This caffeine boom is nothing new. The coffeehouse culture can be traced back to 17th-century Europe.

What is new, however, is the different kind of crowd that the coffeehouse attracts. The majority are upper-middle class people with a median income of $50,000 to $60,000.

And it's not just businesspeople looking for a quick fix before work.

Bible study groups, book clubs and others looking for a jolt of discourse also frequent A Coffee Affair. Women especially.

"Everyone that I know comes here," said Michele Elam, 34, who enjoyed a midmorning Snapple and smoothie with daughter Morgan, 4. "It's just a small, quaint, relaxing place."

Younger suburbanites are also getting in on the act, making the coffeehouse the hip place to hang out.

"You just want a place to sit around and not do anything," said 17-year-old Kim Janusz.

"It's a nice atmosphere," echoed her friend Lindsey Stelzer.

But at the end of the day - and at the bottom of the mug - Monsipapa really prides himself on giving people a high-quality product.

"I'm a coffee snob now. I can't go into your regular breakfast place and order a cup of coffee," he said. "But here I get something good. And so do our customers."


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