Coffee Drinkers Find Perfect Blend Among Princeton's Java Shops
With three main coffee houses downtown and a host of shops that sell a good brew, it's no secret that Princetonians are enthusiastic coffee drinkers. But they aren't as serious as the message on a Ford Escort bumper would suggest. Spied recently in front of Firestone Library, the sticker read: "Give me coffee and no one gets hurt."
But even enthusiasts have opinions. So what is Princeton's favorite coffee? An informal survey of students, university administrators, and self-employed professionals hoisting venti size (20 ounce) cups back to rented office space agreed that Small World coffee, sold in an urban chic café on Witherspoon Street, ranks at the top. But it is by no means the only show in town, they said.
Starbucks Coffee on Nassau Street and Bucks County Coffee Co. on Palmer Square also have solid backing. As do smaller locales, like Halo Pub for espresso coffee.
At Bucks County Coffee, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, which was the second most important criteria after taste for choosing a coffee house, many said.
Also its flavored coffees are best tasting, according to Emily Hunt, who stops in daily for a French vanilla grande, or maybe a crème brulee. Ms. Hunt, who works for ICI Fashion For Children on Palmer Square, said she also enjoys mistletoe flavor around the holidays and chocolate raspberry. "I love the flavored coffee and the people are nice," Ms. Hunt said, adding that in a few weeks she is going to begin working at the coffee house.
Jolene Scharneck, the store manager, said Bucks County's most popular coffee drink is café mocha and its most popular, non-coffee drink is chai latte.
As customers trooped into the store, they were often greeted by name and asked how they had been. Ms. Scharneck took orders, worked the barista, or coffee making, station, and chatted.
A woman who got a flat tire at the corner sat down gratefully with a large coffee and a blueberry scone. She said she wasn't a regular, but that the staff in the shop had been wonderful to her.
Ms. Scharneck said Bucks County's lunch menu is a big draw, and with its homey atmosphere, it attracts study groups, and business and student meetings. "There are often laptops all over the place; they pull the tables together," Ms. Scharneck said.
Indeed, on a recent weekday morning Bob Esposito was holding a business meeting in the form of a mid-year review with Greg Reilly. The two were seated opposite one another on honey-colored, wood bar stools underneath yellow painted walls and framed paintings, including several of sunflowers.
"I feel relaxed on Palmer Square. It's not crowded, and the set up (of Bucks County) is nice," Mr. Esposito said.
"Small World intrigues me because of the people. But I don't like the coffee," he said. The Americano drinker likes Starbucks the best because it is strong without an aftertaste, he said.
Joel Rich of Palmer Square Management was less decided. He chooses his coffee depending on where he is on the square. At the moment, he was closest to Bucks County, so he slipped in and got a regular house, his typical order.
At Starbucks the most popular coffee order is a grande latte, according to barista Brett Kuestermeyer. Grande is larger than tall, but smaller than venti. Skim versus regular milk vie 50-50 in popularity, he said. Soymilk and half-and-half are also ordered regularly.
"Nonfat, no foam latte," the cashier called to him as he spoke.
"Starbucks is a larger corporation," he continued. "It has refined all its tactics. You can go to any Starbucks and get the same thing. The drinks are just where they should be." Mr. Kuestermeyer said. "I have no problem with Small World, but it's not Starbucks."
Princeton's Starbucks coffee house is a mood-filled space, with leather sofas in one section and straight back chairs and small tables in another. It sells coffee paraphernalia as well as bags of beans or ground coffee, which are available in organic varieties as well as conventional types.
The coffees in dune-colored bags are organic, said a friendly girl behind the counter, whom a customer called Sally.
Sandra Gillette, who works in the dean of the faculty's office at Princeton University, definitely likes Starbucks better than Small World.
"The coffee isn't as strong; it's drinkable," she said. "And you don't have to wait as long."
Ms. Gillette, carrying a large, white cup in each hand, said the people she works with also prefer Starbucks. "We all come here," Ms. Gillette said, who was accompanied by another woman, new to staff, who didn't yet know Princeton.
The Starbucks name was inspired by the character Starbuck in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. The coffee comes in tall, grande, or venti, which means 20 in Italian. The atmosphere is friendly and not intimidating.
Nevertheless, Charlie Lee of Princeton Photo on Nassau Street said he believes Small World is more popular. "It's been my observation that people like Small World better. They come into my shop and they have those cups," he said, referring to the bright red paper cups that Small World's coffee comes in.
"Starbucks is a chain. I think that's a concern. Also Small World has a promotional strategy. They have T-shirts and coffee cards," he said.
Small World Coffee
At Small World Coffee, neither a worker, nor co-owner, Brant Cosaboom, would tell this reporter what the store's most popular drink is.
Mr. Cosaboom described his patrons as a mix of people including both students and professionals.
He said Small World provides a welcoming atmosphere and good coffee.
"Double skim latte to go," the cashier called out. Looking around the shop, backpacks, laptops, sweatshirts and suit jackets could all be seen in abundance. Central to the store is a glass front bakery case and coffee bar, which is standard for all the coffee houses. But it also has a separate sandwich counter, where soups, juice drinks, and other food can be bought. It sells coffee in bags, travel mugs, and T-shirts.
"If you take a picture of yourself wearing a Small World T-shirt in a location other than New Jersey, we'll will give you a free cup of coffee," Mr. Cosaboom said, explaining the promotion, while cleaning a chunk of metal with a small brush that he said was from a coffee grinder.
"C.O.D. to stay," the cashier called to the barista. C.O.D. stands for coffee of the day, not cash on delivery. Today's is Joker Poker, a blend that the cashier said "isn't a strong as our house blend."
"Joe to go," the cashier called.
Jazz plays and there is a constant din of coffee making that somehow promotes intimate conversations and also a feeling of anonymity.
A woman sat alone writing in a journal, clutching a red paper cup, and swigging occasionally.
An obvious newcomer said, "I'll take a tall latte to stay."
"By tall ... you mean large," the cashier asked kindly.
"Yeah, big," came the response.
Dawn Coluccio, a Hamilton schoolteacher, who was waiting in line on her day off, said "I go 20 minutes out of my way to come here because it tastes good and the people are great."
Even on school days, Ms. Coluccio said she barrels into town, grabs a cup, and heads back to school.
"I love it here. My favorite is Grumpy Monkey," Ms. Coluccio said, referring to a particular coffee blend.
Grumpy Monkey is a Small World blend of African and Indonesian coffees, providing a full-bodied, full-flavored brew, according to the company's website.
"Double mocha to go," the cashier called. "Can I help who's next?"
Martin Monti, who deftly carried his Small World coffee while riding a bike through Palmer Square, said, "They have good coffee. The foam is good."
But he wouldn't commit on the coffee quality. "I only buy cappuccino from Small World," said the seemingly unwilling coffee drinker. "I'm from Italy, I have to drink coffee."
The Princeton graduate student, who said Italy also accounted for his bike riding ability, named three places to go for good espresso, including Palmer Square's Lindt Chocolate shop, which sells Italian-made Illy Espresso, Halo Pub, and The Little Chef Pastry Shop on South Tulane Street, which sells Lavazza café espresso.
All in all, the venues appear to be variations on a theme that should suit any coffee klatch; their coexistence highlights Princeton's liveliness and liveability.