Looking Back on 30 Years At Old City Coffee

Owner Ruth Isaac discusses how business is changing after 30 years.

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Thirty years ago, Ruth Isaac brought coffee roasting to Old City. Today, Old City Coffee has three Philadelphia locations and is still family operated by Ruth and her husband, Jack. All of the roasting is now done at their Reading Terminal location, where Ruth and Jack can be found helping customers, making drinks and offering suggestions for their favorite coffee.

The Reading Terminal location opened four years after Old City in 1988. “When I came in [to the Reading Terminal Market], there were major amounts of renovation that went on, and at one point, when it rained, the water just rained right into the market,” Isaac says. “It was really nitty-gritty. It wasn’t nearly as full, it wasn’t nearly as bright.”

Twenty-seven years later, the Reading Terminal Market was picked by the American Planning Association in their annual “10 Great Public Spaces in America.” “Everybody knows its an amazing location for food and an amazing landmark,” Isaac says. And many of the online orders come from customers who’ve visited Old City Coffee during a convention.

Reading Terminal Market manager Paul Steinke recently left his position and the market is now searching for a new general manager. “I’m hoping obviously for a foodie,” Isaac says. “Not someone who has to be getting dirty everyday, but someone who really appreciates the whole process.”

After thirty years in the coffee biz, Isaac has noticed a lot of changes in her customers–in their expectations and their knowledge.

“I really see a sophistication in the customer. Where it used to be they wanted to know where the coffee was grown and how it was roasted, now it’s ‘Is it sustainably grown? Is it fair trade? Is it organic?'” Isaac says. “They’re looking for an authenticity so they wanna not only make a connection in the cup, they wanna make a connection through the whole flavor of the business.”

The coffee at Old City is Utz certified, meaning each product is sustainable, and each bag of coffee can be traced back to the farm from which it came. The Utz certification agency also checks out how the workers are treated on the farm, as well as what benefits are offered for them. Along with this certification, Isaac says Old City Coffee was one of the first independent roasters who donated to a research organization strictly doing coffee agronomies research at the University of Texas.

“Climate change is definitely affecting coffee,” Isaac says. “This year, we’re still waiting for the crop that usually is harvested in January, so it’s a couple months behind.”

As for the future, Isaac plans on staying in Philadelphia. “Franchising, remote locations, international locations are intentionally no thank you,” Ruth says. She wants to be closer to the coffee and closer to the customers. She just wants Old City Coffee to continue in Philadelphia for years to come.

“All the numbers say a small, family business only survives one generation. So my hope is that it would have more of a life, two to three generations.”

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