Three Decades of Cultivating Community Connections Are Focus of Small World’s Anniversary Celebrations
COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: A Princeton institution since 1993, Small World Coffee celebrates its 30th anniversary next month with special events and offerings at its Witherspoon Street location, shown here, and its Nassau Street store, as well as several locations throughout town. (Photo courtesy of Small World Coffee)
By Anne Levin
Last September, Small World Coffee co-founder Jessica Durrie read a column in the New York Times about the surgeon general’s report on loneliness in America. The report cited loneliness as an epidemic — more dangerous to health than obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes, or downing six alcoholic drinks in a day.
The column, by Nicholas Kristof, made Durrie profoundly sad. Since its inception three decades ago, Small World has valued the cultivation of community connections as much as the creation of perfect house blends. The 30-year anniversary of the company was coming up, and she knew she had found a theme.
“That article in the Times was the seed of it,” Durrie said about the upcoming month of celebratory events. “One thing that has always been important to me has been the ability to create a sense of belonging. It’s probably a result of my upbringing — we moved a lot. We decided we would use this anniversary to tell a story that shows how when a group of people in a community support each other, have open arms and open hearts, and work together, we feel that sense of belonging. And that makes us more capable of thriving and flourishing.”
The actual anniversary of Small World is December 22. On that afternoon, two of the original employees will make a guest appearance behind the counter, slices of celebratory cake from Olives will be served, and a drawing for the winner of a Moccamaster KBG Coffee Maker will be held. Additional events are being held throughout the town, throughout the month.
There are 12 participating businesses and organizations. The Arts Council of Princeton has sponsored a special mural by artist and Small World employee Jacqui Alexander on Spring Street. The Bent Spoon is using Small World Coffee NOLA extract for a unique ice cream flavor. Lucy’s Kitchen is giving a free drink card to the first 30 people to buy a bag of coffee. McCarter Theatre is serving Small World drinks at performances of A Christmas Carol. Princeton Public Library has two events planned. Jammin’ Crepes, JaZams, Labyrinth Books, LiLLiPiEs Bakery, Princeton Record Exchange, the Whole Earth Center, and Mistral restaurant are also taking part.
Starting December 1, customers can participate in the “Better Together Stroll,” picking up a punch card with all of the merchants taking part. The first 30 people to return their fully stamped cards to Small World will get a goody bag of treats, and be eligible in the Moccamaster prize drawing.
“I could have included a lot more businesses, but we decided to focus on an awesome handful with whom we’ve worked on a lot of things. I think it’s a great way to celebrate,” Durrie said.
Durrie was 25 and her partner Brant Cosaboom was 27 when, after a year of searching, they settled on Princeton as a location for a community-oriented coffee shop. Durrie, who had graduated from Cornell University’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Administration, met Cosaboom, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s biological psychology program, when both were working at the Expresso Royale in Ann Arbor, Mich. The two became a couple and have since married and divorced, but remain business partners. Cosaboom runs Small World Roasters in Rocky Hill.
“We found Princeton kind of by accident,” Durrie said. “We had written it off as not right when we did all of the demographic research, because it was so small. But then Brant’s mom and dad moved here, and we came out for Thanksgiving. We could just tell immediately that it was the perfect town. And I guess not being from this region, I didn’t understand the density of this area. New Jersey is just a series of towns. So the population of 30,000 was clearly not a problem.”
While they searched for a location, Durrie waitressed as the Main Street restaurant, and Cosaboom worked at Firestone Library. “We pounded the pavement to find a willing landlord to rent to a 25-year-old and a 27-year-old with no experience,” Durrie said. “I was almost giving up hope, and was on my way to Knoxville to look at a place, when I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign in the window at 14 Witherspoon Street had been changed to ‘For Rent.’ I ran into the owner, Al Bonin, and asked him if we could talk when I got back. He was willing to rent to me as long as my dad signed the lease.”
The lease was signed in the beginning of August 1993, and the work began. “We did it at lightning speed, and I think our naivete made it happen,” Durrie said. “Now that I understand the building department process, I know how unusual that was. My brothers, both of whom had gone to architecture school, came out from Michigan and built the café for us.”
Small World quickly became popular, and the café eventually expanded next door. A second store was opened at 254 Nassau Street. But after 10 years, the couple divorced. “We thought about selling for a minute, but we didn’t,” Durrie said.
Small World’s small-town vision has remained the same.
“I have to remind my employees now, 30 years in, that we’re still grassroots,” Durrie said. “We have never wavered from our style of service and the way Brant roasts the coffee. There is always refinement, and the menu has expanded, but the ethos has always been to create a place of belonging and great energy, and serve coffee very well.”
The pandemic posed a particular challenge.
“It ties into how I chose to celebrate this anniversary, because the amount that I was able to lean into my fellow merchants in town was so significant,” Durrie said. “There is no way Brant and I could have gotten Small World through the pandemic without that kind of merchant community. Before we closed for a period, I remember being in the office at JaZams with Joanne [Farrugia] and Laurent [Chapius], owner of Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop, and sitting at the little children’s table, trying to figure out what to do. And through the entire pandemic, that didn’t end. The perpetual touching base and problem-solving together was so important.”
Durrie estimates “several thousand” people have worked as baristas at Small World. Currently, there are 45 people on staff. With many Princeton University students behind the counter, turnover is about 40 percent a year. The head trainer has been with the company since 1994, and some of the baristas have been on staff for two decades.
“There’s a lot of institutional knowledge in our company,” Durrie said. “That’s why Small World feels the way it does.”
A written statement by Durrie at the Spring Street mural location ends with these words: We know that, as social beings, the sense of connection is indispensable for our mental and physical well-being. In an era overcast with loneliness, we hope this mural inspires you to dive in. Reach out, include others, make new friends, keep an open heart, and acknowledge the inherent human need for belonging. Your community is right here, lean into it and watch it grow.”
For a list of participating merchants and anniversary events, visit smallworldcoffee.com.