Zagat: La Colombe Co-Founder JP Iberti Talks Haiti, Movies, Fishtown and Starbucks


La Colombe is probably the most-recognized name in Philly coffee. Started 18 years ago, Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe Iberti’s company now supplies beans to restaurants across the country and has cafes in four cities around the world, with more on the way (details here). Though Todd was off visiting farms and filming for the Travel Channel’s Dangerous Grounds, Danya Henninger of Zagat was able to catch up with JP after he returned from a trip to Haiti for a fun Coffee Week conversation.

Zagat: Finish the sentence. The secret to La Colombe’s success is…

JP Iberti: It’s cool, but I really don’t know how it happened. We’re successful maybe because we’ve been doing it for so long, that’s why. We haven’t changed course. We still own 95% of the company.

Zagat: My favorite way to brew coffee is…

JPI: At home I use Chemex. I love the simplicity of it. I used to have a big metal stovetop pot, I liked that for the same reason. It’s easy, it’s like cowboy coffee. At the cafe, I drink espresso.

Zagat: The bean I’m obsessed with right now is…

JPI: Right now, my thoughts are about more than just a bean to drink myself, I’m obsessed with the search for a seed. La Colombe is working in Haiti to set up a coffee farm, to help create a sustainable business and reopen the Haitian coffee trade route. We’re starting a nursery with almost 100,000 plants, so finding the right seed is very important.

Working with the Federal University of Brazil, we found a bean from Acauã, which has huge potential; not only does it brew a beautiful cup, but it’s also resistant to rot and a lot of other diseases that plants in Haiti are prone to. There’s not a lot of room for trial and error, because with coffee you only get one harvest per year.

I’ve been working really hard on this project, in part because we received donations. When I spend $400,000 to open a new cafe, I don’t worry at all. But this is not going to be owned by La Colombe, it’s for the people who live in Haiti and the money is from a donor – I feel a huge obligation to make it work!

Zagat: The most unusual person I’ve met sourcing coffee is…

JPI: Sean Penn, hands down. I met him because he’s been doing a lot of work in Haiti. The guy is so intense, seeing him I understand what it takes to be an artist. He just fills the room with energy – he’s a small guy, but his energy is huge. Last time I saw him was at a Haiti meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, and he was down at the end of the hallway, getting ready to leave. There’s hundreds of people swarming around him, assistants trying to coordinate, security everywhere. He didn’t care, he just went right through everyone and started walking down the street.

Zagat: If I spent time at a cafe that’s not La Colombe it would be…

JPI: I love to travel, and I absolutely love cafes in Italy. For me, it’s like theater. I’m French and the cultures are very close, but it’s French people always seem like they’re in a bad mood, and Italians are hilariously dramatic instead. My favorite cafe is probably Tazza D’Oro, right next to the Pantheon in Rome. If you go in the morning it’s a crazy scene –  baristas wear these green jackets with ugly green and yellow logos, they’re ugly but cool. The cafe just buzzes with activity, and it’s so Italian. If you took Italians out and replaced them with anyone else, the cafe wouldn’t work, it would just collapse.

Zagat: My favorite coffee moment in a movie is…

JPI: It has to be Bill Murray in Coffee and Cigarettes, when he drinks out of the pot of the coffee. I love that. It’s hysterical. [Murray serves coffee to GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and goes on to sit down for a chat. Check out the clip here.]

Zagat: The best accompaniment to a cup of coffee is…

JPI: The guy who taught me everything I know about coffee – he was old school – his answer would be a Camel nonfilter. But for me, for my first cup of coffee of the day, it’s probably a newspaper. If you’re talking a culinary accompaniment, then it would be ice and condensed milk. I love those Vietnamese coffees. I don’t usually put sugar or milk in my coffee, but drinking those is like drinking candy – you feel like you need to go to the dentist afterwards.

Zagat: On a Sunday morning, you’ll find me…

JPI: At home. I love my Sunday mornings, drinking coffee and reading the paper (on my iPad Mini) for two hours. Just slowing down. Seems like Saturdays we always have stuff to do, but Sundays are a different pace. The house is cool and quiet.

I live in Fishtown, I moved there in 2006. I love that it’s always been a neighborhood and that while it’s growing and changing, it’s still very Philly. I find it amazing how many people live here now, when I go to the bar to grab some nachos and a beer, it’s always packed. Fishtown is back.

Zagat: My least favorite thing about Starbucks is…

JPI: That they sold the Seattle SuperSonics! My sister married a basketball player on the Sonics, so I was connected to that scene when I lived there – not that they were ever really great, or anything. When Howard Schultz sold the team, the new owners said there were no intentions of moving it. But then no stadium got built, so they  moved the team out. Not cool.

Zagat: A thing I admire about Starbucks is…

JPI: How they make life easier for a lot of people by having bathrooms everywhere! But also, in the world of coffee, they’ve done a lot to open people’s minds – and pockets – they’ve been the high-end coffee pioneers. Now we all can cater to customers with high expectations for quality.

I do feel bad for them sometimes, for all the pushback they get. I know a lot of people who work at the Seattle office, and they are cool people. Opening 1,200 cafes a year is pretty ridiculous, but once you have a public company, it’s all about pleasing stockholders. I just don’t think Starbucks is one of those evil corporations.

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