In a warehouse near downtown St. Petersburg, Raphael Perrier flips a lever on an industrial coffee roasting machine, and a flood of chocolate-colored beans spills into a cooling rack. The 3,500-square-foot warehouse -- home to Kahwa Coffee, the company owned by Perrier and his wife and business partner, Sarah -- fills with the sweet, toasted scent of the beans.
While Perrier roasts coffee, it's a good bet that less than five miles away a barista at one of Kahwa Coffee
’s two downtown cafes is brewing a shot of espresso with the same Mistral blend. Composed of South and Central American and Indonesian beans that Perrier scoops out of burlap sacks and into the roaster, Kahwa's coffee makes a short trip from warehouse to cup in the 'Burg.
Now Kahwa's beans are on the move to downtown Tampa and a new cafe in the iconic "Cube'' building at Rivergate Tower
, which the Perriers opened on Jan. 9. By March, they plan to unveil a second downtown Tampa location at the Element
residential high-rise, where Kahwa will be the building's first retail tenant.
With three stores open, one in progress, and a growing wholesale business that helped the company achieve $1.4 million in sales in 2011 and employ a staff of 21, plenty is brewing at Kahwa Coffee six years since the couple founded it. Their coffee has earned the praise of celebrity chefs Jerome Bocuse and Michel Richard (who serves Kahwa in his highly regarded Washington DC restaurant Citronelle), but the Perriers are equally proud of building community through their business on both sides of Tampa Bay.
The couple's entrepreneurial dreams began in Philadelphia. After majoring in marketing at Temple University, French-born Raphael went to work for a Philly-based coffee roasting company, learning the ropes by starting off at the counter as a barista before taking on management positions.
That's how he met Sarah, a dancer who had attended the University of the Arts. A fellow member of the modern dance troupe she worked for was a regular at the coffee shop where Raphael worked.
For their first business, the couple opened a nightclub in downtown Philadelphia, a venture that was an instant success, Perrier says. But after a few years, the couple began to imagine a business and a location better suited to their plans for starting a family. In 2005, they moved to Sarah's native St. Pete with plans to open a branch of Tampa-based tapas restaurant Ceviche downtown.
That plan fell through -- Ceviche
opened in St. Pete, but without the Perriers' involvement. (Today the restaurant is one of Kahwa's wholesale customers.) The couple decided to cash in on Raphael's coffee expertise by starting Kahwa -- the Arabic word for coffee and French slang for the drink -- instead.
Persistence Pays Off
Kahwa's first two years were tough. Sarah roasted coffee and kept the company's books while Raphael knocked on doors as its wholesale rep, becoming the face of Kahwa Coffee in Tampa Bay. The first year, they sold $50,000 of coffee. The second year sales were better, but there were moments when they wondered what they were doing.
By 2008, Kahwa was doing well enough for the couple to open Kahwa Espresso Bar
on 2nd Street North near the Palladium Theater
in St. Petersburg. The cafe's modern design and well-trained baristas helped make it an instant hit with locals. Meanwhile, Kahwa's wholesale business was growing, attracting customers including Citronelle in DC and Tampa Bay restaurants like Parkshore Grill
and Mise en Place
. A second downtown cafe, on 2nd Avenue South, opened in 2010 to sell coffee drinks along with pastries, sandwiches and salads.
So far, 2012 is all about expanding into Tampa. Raphael, 36, and Sarah, 35, see other Florida cities like Jacksonville and Orlando as goals for Kahwa's further expansion, but their first priority is maintaining the quality and consistency of their product.
"If you don’t have the patience to grow a brand, you're not going to go anywhere,'' Raphael Perrier says.
Moving To Tampa
Kahwa's reputation as a hip, local producer of superior coffee inspired Rivergate Tower owner Dennis Udwin to approach the Perriers about opening an outpost in the ground floor of his building. Since purchasing the property about six months ago, Udwin -- a Palm Beach-based real estate developer and partner in In-Rel Properties, Inc.
-- has been working to "reposition'' the skyscraper and its cube-shape annex as one of the anchors of downtown Tampa's arts district.
Though esteemed by architecture aficionados, the Harry Wolf-designed building has been called the "beer can'' by Tampa residents for decades. Now that it faces two recently constructed museums, the Tampa Museum of Art
and the Glaser Children's Museum
, across a redesigned Curtis Hixon Park
, the developer expects the building's fortunes to change. In addition to Kahwa, Udwin -- who describes himself as enamored with Tampa -- has enticed the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
to relocate to the Cube's second and third floors in March.
"To my thought, what the Guggenheim is to New York, this Cube could be to Tampa,'' Udwin says.
To facilitate Kahwa's arrival, Udwin worked with Tampa-based Urban Studio Architects
to give the ground floor of the Cube and the lobby of the adjacent tower a modernist makeover in a red-black-and-white color palette. Free wifi and flat-screen TVs are intended to entice people to regard Rivergate's public spaces -- where they can check new email, grab a sandwich and a latte at Kahwa's counter -- as an air-conditioned extension of the public park outside.
Udwin's vision sounded so good that the Perriers signed a 20-year lease to bring Kahwa to the Cube.
"Downtown Tampa seems to be changing, and we're hoping we can be part of it,'' says Sarah Perrier.
Megan Voeller of Tampa is a contributing writer to 83 Degrees Media and the visual art critic for Creative Loafing. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.