Philly’s homegrown coffee roaster La Colombe to extend its retail reach under Chobani control

La Colombe has a new but familiar owner that just happens to sell coffee creamer. Here’s what to expect.

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Quinn Rodriguez-Williams works at La Colombe in Fishtown

Quinn Rodriguez-Williams has been working at La Colombe in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood for the past two years. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Philadelphia barista Quinn Rodriguez-Williams pulls hundreds of espresso shots on average each day for a steady flow of customers inside the La Colombe Coffee Roasters flagship cafe in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood.

“Our most popular espresso is our Nizza, which has a caramel and nutty flavor,” Rodriguez-Williams explained while preparing a latte. “I definitely go home smelling like coffee. But it smells good.”

Rodriguez-Williams is one of La Colombe’s roughly 800 employees, which includes part-time workers. The Philly-based coffee roaster announced late last week it was being acquired by Chobani, a New York-based greek yogurt giant, which manufactures coffee creamer too, for a whopping $900 million price tag.

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The exact details about the partnership moving forward are still being worked out and future plans will be shared later, officials said.

“The focus today is really doubling down on what we do best. So La Colombe, it’s about coffee. Cold brew is high growth. Chobani has its creamers. I do think there’s a lot of leverage there,” said Kathryn O’Connor, chief marketing officer of La Colombe. “The best is yet to come.”

La Colombe is expected to remain as an independent business with the same management but will collaborate with Chobani more closely.

But Chobani is no stranger to La Colombe employees and its leadership. The yogurt company’s founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, made a significant investment several years ago after the coffee roaster accepted investment money from private equity.

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The interior of La Colombe cafe in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood.
La Colombe cafe in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But it spun out within a year after Chobani’s founder stepped in as its sole investor and majority owner. 

O’Connor said Ulukaya’s initial investment was influential in the shift for La Colombe to branch out beyond cafes.

“The cafe business model was the core of our business for many years,” she said. “It was really about the vision to bring better coffee to more people. In order to do that at scale, it wasn’t going to happen through a cafe on every corner in every city. The ability to transform [the cafe] into a crafted on-the-go beverage.”

Ulukaya told Fast Company that acquiring La Colombe is “enormously meaningful for Chobani.”

That’s because it enables Chobani to “tap into the dream of being tomorrow’s modern food company, continuing to invest, disrupt, and bring better, nutritious options to the masses,” he said.

In recent years, La Colombe has doubled down on bottled coffees, from cold brews to draft lattes, sold at retailers.

But when poured into a glass — the latte still has froth — closer to how it tastes when slung across the counter by a barista, said O’Connor with La Colombe.

“It didn’t exist until we created it,” she said about the draft latte. “It tastes like a creamy sweet but not too sweet coffee that’s not too intense or bitter.”

La Colombe grew as a business because its founders sold coffee as a spice to chefs — which helped them justify the higher-than-usual market prices for bulk coffee.

“It was all about introducing coffee as an ingredient in kitchens,” O’Connor said.

The coffee roaster company was the brainchild of Todd Carmichael and JP Iberti, with its first retail location near Rittenhouse Square in the mid-1990s.

“Espresso in America to that point was an abrasive liquid. It was not to be consumed without tons of sugar or milk on it and we wanted to break that mystique,” Carmichael told NPR in 2020 when he was still the CEO.

In 2021, Carmichael stepped down as La Colombe’s top brass, to launch a bottled water startup instead. Carmichael deferred all comments about La Colombe to O’Connor. Chobani also deferred all comments for this news story to La Colombe.

A few days after the sale was announced, there was a usual steady flow of customers at its Frankford Avenue cafe. The line typically winds back around the front window gift shop so coffee aficionados can browse while waiting for their turn to order. The table was stocked with Chobani creamer, of course.

Customers ordered draft lattes, espressos, vanilla matcha and the occasional herbal tea. Some opted for single-use cups while others stuck with ceramic dishes.

Quinn Rodriguez-Williams pours steamed milk into an espresso
Quinn Rodriguez-Williams, who has been working at La Colombe in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood for the past two years, pours steamed milk into espresso. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Instead of commodifying coffee and opening hundreds of cafes in 30 years — La Colombe kept its retail footprint small with 32 locations – mostly in big cities.

And it still serves coffee in real mugs. With metal spoons. At its coffee bar there’s an option for as much cream, sugar and other accouterments that a customer desires.

“We have these mugs that are from Italy … they are just really distinctive,” O’Connor said.

There’s still an old school flair to La Colombe’s cafes, even as the world has changed around them.

Some of its cafes still don’t offer Wi-Fi, nor do they enforce a nearly silent library atmosphere. And there’s free water for customers on tap, even sparkling water in real glass cups.

Some fill up their water bottles. Others use glassware provided. On Monday afternoon, a small child asked her father to mix the water on tap with the sparkling water on tap using two different colored glasses.

He dutifully obliged — to her sheer delight. It was a family experience and that’s the point, La Colombe’s executive, O’Connor said.

“The mindset that we had early on was really about creating a space where people came and talked and connected and had a more social experience,” she said. “If you walk into our Rittenhouse cafe there are folks that have been going there for 20 years, they have their group and they hang out. It’s a lively experience.”

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