Philly Maker Series: How La Colombe's Todd Carmichael Built His Coffee Empire

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

The most interesting person in Philly? Maybe Pat the Bat (if all the stories are true), but La Colombe’s Todd Carmichael has to be pretty high on the list, too. Just take a look at the man’s Wikipedia page, which reads like a script for a Dos Equis commercial -- solo trekked across Antarctica, started a multi-million dollar business, still travels around the globe in the name of Good Coffee.

With all of this global success under his belt, Carmichael still adamantly credits his Philly roots as paramount to his laundry list of accomplishments, from the very first cafe to canning the hyped draft latte and shipping it to La Colombe outposts across the country. We sat down with the CEO and co-founder to learn more about how a small Rittenhouse coffee shop grew into an empire, and what it is about Philly that made all of it possible.

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

You’re originally from Washington State -- how did you end up in Philly?
Todd Carmichael: I spent my 20s learning my trade on other people’s dime. I started working at this little cafe in Seattle in 1982, which had around three locations at the time, which later came to be known as Starbucks. That was my introduction to coffee. Very early on, it was a super-small company, very exciting and fast-paced.

"I knew that the scene was going to shock awake at some point and I wanted to be a part of that."

I was also attending business school, and I never really separated the two: business and coffee. But I knew that there was more to come, so I moved to Europe to study the craft. At the time, Europe really had the edge on coffee -- beer, wine, coffee, all the beverages were being done better in Europe. So at the age of 29 or 30, I realized my ticket was ready and it was time to start my own company, so I came to Philadelphia.
I looked at a lot of cities on the East Coast, but when I hit Philly, I knew it was the one.

What about Philly stood out to you?
There were a lot of strategic elements to it -- its proximity to Boston, New York, DC. I like its infrastructure. Not even just airports and rails but ports for shipping. When you’re thinking big, you need to be plugged into the larger system.

But it was really the city that made it. At the time, Starbucks hadn’t been here yet. There were no cafes and I couldn’t understand how that would exist [in 1993], so they really needed me. And it corresponded to a time where the city was experiencing a reawakening in terms of its food and beverage. I knew that the scene was going to shock awake at some point and I wanted to be a part of that.

"Rittenhouse gave me my opportunity."

I have a love of architecture, think that it tells a story, and there was this beautiful historic park called Rittenhouse where I was able to get a 50-year lease for basically what it would cost you to lease a car. And that’s where our first cafe, and La Colombe, was born.

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

How was business those first few years in Rittenhouse during the '90s?
For me, it was a sleeping beauty. I looked at that park and knew what it would become. But at the time, it was a place where you could come and score crack pretty easily. There were vials everywhere and people sleeping in the park. Most people were afraid to walk across it after a certain point at night. People in the suburbs would talk about it like it was a real frightening place to go. It was a tough place, sort of like the Tenderloin used to be in San Francisco. But by 1996 that all changed.

What happened in 1996?
It wasn’t a sudden shift, but you saw more and more players start to come in. I think that when Neil Stein first opened Rouge, there was another operator. Stephen Starr started to do his thing on Walnut and the buildings on Chestnut were being renovated. It was a half-decade of waking up. Now when I walk it 23 years later, it’s exactly like I hoped it would be, and that’s a really important thing -- that the soil be really fertile. When you want to build up hype for something, you want to start at the ground floor. Rittenhouse was that -- it gave me my opportunity.

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

What were some of the key milestones between that first shop in Rittenhouse and where you are now?
The next big thing [after the first cafe] was a roasting warehouse. Initially, for the first few months we roasted the coffee in the [Rittenhouse] cafe, but that had its limitations. We found a warehouse out in Port Richmond and purchased it, right along the 95 corridor. For the first decade, we started selling to hotels and restaurants. And it wasn’t that hard, really... at the time, all the best chefs and restaurants in the country were coming to us, Philadelphia, for their coffee.

Do you think that you struck during a lucky time, where just as you were starting people in the US and major cities were starting to think more about coffee?
During the early '90s, coffee in most restaurants was really just like the salt in the salt shaker on the table. It was a commodity, it didn’t have a face, it didn’t have a name. It was just there on the table. And that started changing.

La Colombe can flatter ourselves and say we participated in that revolution, but really, the country was changing at the time -- we were starting to think more about what we liked to eat, what we liked to drink.

During the early '90s, coffee was like the salt in the salt shaker on the table -- it was a commodity.

Do I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world? Of course I do [laughs], I definitely do. When you look at La Colombe now, how much of that was just sheer good timing and great luck? It was a huge part of it. But Philadelphia was also a big part of that, too. I don’t think that La Colombe would be where it is today or continue to be where we’re going if we started in another city.

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

Why do you think that is?
I think that Philadelphia was such outrageously fertile soil. We had a mayor at the time, Ed Rendell, that did everything he could to help us [and other small businesses] at the time. We ship over 2 million pounds of coffee to NYC a year. I have front row seats to one of the biggest markets in the world, and I don’t have to live there.

As much as we love to look at the city with rose-colored glasses, Philly is Philly and there are some challenges. Have you experienced any along the way?
I wish something came to mind. The way I look at Philadelphia, my neighbors, is that they require authenticity, and they have from day one. This is the environment that our company has grown in -- it requires transparency, honesty, that you work hard, not full of any bullshit -- and this is a big part of who we are as a brand. We grew up in a tough environment.

And coming up, there weren’t a lot of cafes -- which, as a coffee roaster, isn’t the best thing. So that forced us into the toughest environment on earth, which was the kitchen in the '90s. And I can tell you some stories...

La Colombe
Todd Carmichael & JP Iberti | Courtesy of La Colombe

Such as?
One I can share: my partner [co-founder JP Iberti] and I were in a kitchen back in 1994 and the chef belonged to one of those old-school… [let's just say] chefs were very verbal at the time. And we were standing in the kitchen and someone served our coffee in a chipped cup. The chef threw that cup across the room and I guess he felt like that wasn’t enough of expressing himself, so he proceeded to break all of his dishes in the entire kitchen.

We were four inches deep in broken ceramic and he fired everyone in the kitchen, made everyone leave through the alley and locked the door. Checks are still coming out, there's a whole bunch of people, things are cooking on the burners and he looks at us and says, "You need to start picking this stuff up." So old-school Philadelphia. That’s how we cut our teeth in that environment.

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

What's next for La Colombe?
Well, we invented what I’d like to think is the next big generation of coffee. In 1996, someone came into the bar and asked for something I thought was the most unusual thing ever... they said, "Can I get an iced latte?" The problem was that the only method of making an iced latte was to make a hot one, add some ice cubes, and let it cool down. You end up with a watered down, textureless drink, and texture is what’s so great about milk and coffee drinks.

I’ve always had it in the back of my mind how to create a cold latte that has the same texture and flavor you can get in a hot one. And the draft latte, which we’re just starting to make and ship in cans now, came from that. We created it in Fishtown. [Editor's note: You can get them at the Dilworth Plaza location.]

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

With a TV show and business that's spread across the country, what are the things you miss most about Philly?
When I was walking across Antarctica for two months, I absolutely couldn't think about anything else -- honestly anything else -- but Joe’s Pizza. Hot pepperoni, slightly crispy, the right amount of cheese. And it was something I thought about for hours and hours on end. It was actually the first thing I ate when I got back to Philly. I went almost directly there and sat for hours until I couldn’t get another bite down.

"We invented what I’d like to think is the next big generation of coffee."

But a lot of the travel I do is in Africa, places that are hot and sticky. And you would think I would miss a nice hotel but it's really the simple things. Sitting around with my friends, having a drink, coffee. Or a lemonade at Di Bruno brothers. I guess both things I miss are Italian [laughs].

La Colombe
Courtesy of La Colombe

Any advice for the next generation of Philadelphia entrepreneurs and makers?
My greatest advice is live like a rock star. Absolutely live like a rock star -- and what that means is, live in a van. Learn how to schlep. Carry your own gear. This is how every rock star started. Don’t spend a dime on yourself until what you’re looking to start is in orbit. That way, you don’t have to borrow money and you don’t have to sell your shit.

Sign up here for our daily Philly email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

After talking with Todd, Dan is strongly considering quitting his day job and traveling the globe looking for the world’s best booze... oh wait, that’s already a show. Damnit. Follow him on Twitter: @dannypageviews.