Ultimo Coffee, Philadelphia
After almost 10 years of experience working in coffee in Washington, DC, Aaron and Elizabeth Ultimo opened Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia. Ultimo Coffee is based around the simple idea of providing the best possible coffee and the best possible service while teaching the customer a little bit about the coffee they're experiencing. To help in this quest, Ultimo Coffee manually brews all of their coffee, and, after 11 a.m., all of their coffee is made to order. Ultimo Coffee was recently written up in the Philadelphia Inquirer as the best coffee shop in Philadelphia. The crew at Ultimo Coffee bears this reputation with humility and grace – and continues to think of Ultimo Coffee as a constant process of refining and perfecting what they do. A second Ultimo location is in the works for 2012.
Aaron took a few minutes out of his busy day to share with us his thoughts on Ultimo Coffee.
Q: How long have you been open?
Ultimo Coffee opened in May 2009.
Q: What made you want to open Ultimo? What was your inspiration?
I never had an epiphany where it dawned on me that I wanted my own coffee bar. I think after working in coffee long enough, the idea slowly grew in my mind until it was the only thing I could really see myself doing. I love the process of creating. That extends to the idea of creating a space where people can enjoy each other and great coffee as well as it extends to crafting a delicious coffee. In the end, I love the people in and around the industry, and I love the coffee that I get to drink every day.
Q: What did you do before starting starting a career in coffee?
I didn't really have much of a career before coffee. I came to it right out of college. I did manage a movie theater when I was in school. That was definitely a lot of fun, too, and taught me a few of the things that I still use today when it comes to owning and managing a business.
Q: What kind of establishment is Ultimo?
Ultimo Coffee is currently a medium-sized coffee bar with modern clean design sitting in a slowly developing urban neighborhood in Philadelphia. We serve only hand brewed coffees (Chemex, Beehouse dripper, and press pot) and "traditional" espresso drinks. We have a very minimalistic approach to coffee with a simple menu of just a few coffees and only one size for each beverage. There is a small offering of pastries and sweets from a few local bakeries (Four Worlds, Betty's, Coco Love), as well as a small selection of in house-made, artisanal sandwiches featuring local, sustainable ingredients. We try to specialize in doing just a few things, but try to do them to the absolute best of our abilities.
Q: Tell us about your customers: what kind of demographic do you cater most to? Are you a destination location or more of a neighborhood establishment? When are your busiest times and why
We are first and foremost a neighborhood shop and most of our customers come from nearby. This means local residents, local business folks, students, artists, hipsters, and people of many different ethnic groups and ages. We do get our fair share of people from around the city, as well, who know that we make some of the best coffee around; so, there are some people that come to us as a destination. We get occasional visits from out-of-towners, too, who have heard about us and want to see what the fuss is about, and coffee geeks who are passing through town on a coffee crawl. We find ourselves busy mostly before noon, though we get a good number of folks who come in throughout the day and into the evening.
Q: Paint us a visual picture of Ultimo.
We are a coffee shop in a corner brick rowhouse in a residential neighborhood just off of Broad Street in South Philadelphia. The neighborhood has seen some recent development, but is still what we might call "fringy." We have lots of windows and a clear, glass garage door on the side of the building. Entering the store, you see our lovely bar constructed from strips of mahogany and rock-solid, concrete-like counter tops. The floor is an original terrazzo with plenty of cracks and character.
We have a TruBru brew bar topped with Beehouse drippers and currently a Strada EP front and center on the bar (thank you to La Marzocco and Counter Culture Coffee). Various coffee gear and grinders fill the counters and shelves behind the bar. Passing the bar – and our chic European style pastry case – you then see our seating area filled with small, dark-wood tables and chairs and a couple of church pews. Finally, looking to your left your jaw drops as you see 30 feet of craft bottles of beer in coolers lining the exposed brick wall at the interior of the shop. We share the space with a bottle shop called Brew. Many of our customers find this to be the icing on the cake.
Q: You have a reputation for maintaining an extremely high level of quality in your product and service and working long hours in the shop yourself, how would you rate the value of hiring and training your staff properly vs. having a constant owner presence to oversee and maintain consistency?
I think hiring and training great people is essential to surviving as a business and as a business owner. I learned pretty quickly that I can't be at the shop all the time (though it feels like I am sometimes) and I can't make every drink. I needed to cultivate a staff that was passionate enough and had been educated enough to carry on the good work whether I'm at the shop, down the street (at my home), or off on a coffee trip.
Nothing takes the place of constant training and a drive for complete consistency of product among the staff, and this is the key to success, as far as I am concerned. Being around a good deal is very helpful, though. It ensures that the staff feels like the owner is involved and connected and present to set the tone for day to day operations. Ultimately, owning a coffee bar is a good deal of work, and, if you aren't ready to sink in a good deal of your energy into the venture, you're going to find it difficult to pull off. I have had the added advantage of having my wife Elizabeth at my side. She is the workhorse of Ultimo Coffee, and I wouldn't be able to run it without her.
Q: After so many years working closely with specialty coffee, is there anything that still presents you with surprises and challenges?
I think many of us in the industry like to say that one of the things we love about coffee is that we're always learning more about it. I'm often surprised by how little I know about this thing I devote so much of my time to. This both keeps me engaged but also exhausts me. The simple act of dripping a cup of coffee continues to be challenging, and ,if you ask my staff, they would tell you that I am constantly searching for a way to make our coffee even better.