Many homes and offices have coffee makers, and one doesn’t have to go far to find a Dunkin’ or a Starbucks in the Lehigh Valley.
So, what makes people go out of their way to patronize some of the area’s small, independent coffee shops?
There are plenty of reasons people would want to seek out an independent cup o’ joe, but those who own some of the Lehigh Valley’s independent coffee shops say they need to differentiate themselves from the national brands and offer “something different” to bring in customers.
There’s no doubt there’s money to be made. According to Motley Fool, Americans spend about $1,100 per year on coffee. The challenge is getting a piece of that business.
Betty Hochman opened the Java Joint along Hamilton Boulevard in Trexlertown 20 years ago and has been running the drive-up coffee shop successfully ever since.
In Allentown, Lyell Scherline opened Jay’s Local near Muhlenberg College with a goal of becoming a gathering place for community.
One of the Lehigh Valley’s newest coffee shops is also one of its most unique. Benny’s Café on Lehigh Street in Whitehall offers coffee, sandwiches, pastries – and video slots.
Ironically, Betty Hochman isn’t even a coffee drinker herself. She opened Java Joint because she thought it was a good business idea to open a drive-up coffee shop.
She hired a consultant and did a lot of studying to find out what people wanted in a coffee shop. She even enlisted the help of friends who were big coffee fans to pick out the best coffee roast for her business.
“Drive through coffee shops were very Popular on the West Coast, but there weren’t a lot around here,” Hochman said.
She thought if she could offer the speed and convenience of offering her customers coffee and specialty drinks without having to get out of their car it would entice people to her shop. She made sure to locate on the morning commute side of a busy commercial corridor with plenty of workers and shoppers driving by.
“We’re on the right side of the street so people can turn in easily,” she said.
The consultant Hochman hired was an individual that actually helped train the men who started Starbucks, so she learned a lot of the tricks the big national coffee shops employed, but she added her own touch.
She said it was important that her coffee shop not feel “snooty.”
She modeled the building after a 1930s diner to give it a homier feel. She also makes sure that she and her four staffers put friendly first.
No one is going to mock a customer who uses the wrong term or orders a drink based on the name of another coffee retailer.
And even if it’s not on the menu, if they can do it, they’ll make it.
When Lyell Scherline opened Jay’s Local in West Allentown it was in tribute to his late father, Jay Scherline, a well-known Allentown attorney.
He wanted a place that would be about community for students at nearby Muhlenberg College and for the neighbors around his Liberty Street shop.
In the mornings and afternoons, he stays busy selling coffee, specialty drinks, breakfast and sandwiches, but later in the day coffee sales tend to trail off.
But the building is still there, even if the customers aren’t. His solution was to use Jay’s Local as more than just a coffee shop. He now offers it as a pop-up restaurant and space for other people to promote their new food ideas.
“It’s a tough business and there’s a lot of moving parts, so let me step back so I’m not working on this seven days a week, and I get to support other small businesses,” Scherline said.
He has partnered with Jenny’s Kuali, to bring Malaysian cuisine to Jay’s Local. He’s also worked to bring in a pop-up shop for a French pastry chef, Sophie Vandecasteele, who sold her croissants, baguets, quiches and macarons out of the shop.
“She’s had a line out the door when she’s open. She’s doing quite well,” Scherline said.
Next, he has a pop-up shop coming from one of the former chefs at Greenhouse Enoteca, which will be offering a similar menu of fresh Italian fare.
The atmosphere at Benny’s Café, a new coffee shop on Lehigh Street in Whitehall, is a far cry from the traditional independent coffee shop.
Owner Ben Jacobs said his goal was to create a place that was fun.
Besides the regular coffee drinks and light fare of a traditional coffee shop, Benny’s offers video slot gaming.
There are 13 video slot terminals at Benny’s that his customers can enjoy.
“It’s like a hybrid,” Jacobs said. “A lot of adults like the release of gaming and a lot of people like coffee. There are a lot of coffee shops. You’ve got to differentiate yourself”
The video slots are operated by Pennsylvania Skill Games, while he provides the coffee, smoothies and pastries.
He notes that a lot of people stop by for some coffee and games on their way home from work.
He also gets a lot of families in the shop, with kids particularly liking his smoothies and sodas.
He said it’s also become a bit of a hangout where people come just to get out of the house.
“We’re trying to be a community stop,” he said.