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Each and every day, scholars and students, professors and parents; waiters and Wall Streeters; townies and tourists; new mothers and old hats all make their pilgrimage—whether for the third time in a single day or for the first time ever—to a bustling, brilliant place where coffee reigns supreme tucked along a picturesque tree-lined street in the heart of Princeton. If the full-bodied aroma of perfectly ground and brewed coffee doesn’t immediately entice you upon entering, the hum of activity and energy will. Because when you enter into the universe that is Small World Coffee, you become engulfed in the sense of electricity, of excitement, of limitless possibility.
A modern-day salon in the heart of Princeton, Small World Coffee revolves on a swiftly tilting axis of music, the arts, politics, and well-conceived puns (see the full article here to find out). The mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. often sat at a table with number-lined papers and a double latte. Author Jean Hanff Korelitz wrote a portion of her best-selling book, Admissions, fueled by the café’s signature java. Indeed, if good old Albert Einstein were alive today you could certainly imagine him holding court at the high-top table in the corner, surrounded by his protégées, his white hair ecstatic over his cup of perfectly roasted Grumpy Monkey. And on any given Saturday (and most days in between), you’ll find the virtuoso responsible for conducting the inner workings of the place is behind the counter, doling out steaming double Milky Joes to go, tough-chai lattes, and iced green teas, while chatting up every customer in line without missing a beat.
“I often use the phrase, ‘We build community from the inside out,’” says Small World Coffee co-founder and co-owner Jessica Durrie. “I believe if we are able to create an authentic community of support and camaraderie amongst the staff, we are much more capable of amplifying that [sensibility] out in the community of Princeton.”
Small World Coffee is a village that runs like a well-oiled machine thanks to the collaborative partnership at its heart: master roaster Jon March, the creator of Small World’s superior taste profiles and brews; co-founder Brant Cosaboom, coffee connoisseur, tech geek, and back-of-the-house guru; and Durrie, the doyenne of the retail-operations arm and the somewhat reluctant face of the S.W.C. brand.
Small World Coffee’s 14 Witherspoon Street café.
“I think that there’s an authenticity to our company. We’ve been able to take some of our personal beliefs and integrate them into the way we run the business,” Durrie says. “I tell my employees that once they get their feet on the ground in the shop, I want them to authentically be themselves behind the counter. Inclusivity is one of the tenets of what a place like a coffee shop is supposed to be. And not just Small World—it’s what our place is in society. That’s why the whole notion of a café resonated with me from the get-go.”
The concept of inclusion is one that can be traced back to Durrie’s globetrotting childhood: Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Durrie was raised primarily overseas. Her father, an employee of General Motors, and her mother both had a “risk-taking” approach to life: they lived in Rome, São Paulo (twice), and then Melbourne, Australia, before returning to a suburb of Detroit when Durrie was 16. Although it wasn’t as fabulous as her youth abroad, Durrie made the most of it, heading into Detroit’s famed Cass Corridor to see art shows and listen to punk-music bands—acquiring a rock-and-roll edge that is palpable today at the Small World Coffee cafés. She went to (and dropped out of) the University of Michigan, then headed back to California to live with her sister, where she was first introduced to the ways of the food-service industry. One of the chefs she worked for became a sounding board for an inspired Durrie, and encouraged her to look into the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. She applied and was accepted. That’s when the notion of opening her own restaurant took hold. And then, in her last semester, she went on a trip to Vienna.
“I was walking around and thinking, ‘Wow, these cafés are so cool,’” she says. “And then I thought, ‘I am going to do coffee.’ I was reacting to the environment and the feeling of a café. And so for me that was it.”
After graduating from Cornell and a brief stint in Chicago, she headed back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to work for a company called Espresso Royale, with the intention of learning the business from the grounds (pun intended) up. When the opportunity to open a California location for the company presented itself, she headed west all the while working on a business plan with her S.W.C. partner-to-be, Brant Cosaboom, a fellow General Motors expat. Soon, Durrie began crisscrossing the country in search of a charming college town with a population of at least 100,000 residents in which to open their café. They found Princeton.
“We hadn’t even considered Princeton when we were doing the research because the population was 30,000,” Durrie says, laughing. “But when we came out here to visit family at Thanksgiving, I knew this was the town—and moved here a month later.”
Brant Cosaboom and Jon March (right), Durrie’s partners in Small World and the company’s “coffee connoisseurs.”
Divine intervention aside, Durrie and Cosaboom had their work cut out for them. They scoured town for the perfect space to rent, all the while refining their business plan right down to the last box of coffee stirrers and endlessly convincing naysayers they didn’t need to entice customers by selling pizza and cigarettes along with their coffee.
“We knew that if we didn’t get it right,” Durrie says, “we were going to be screwed for a very long time.
But then it all came together—quickly: They found a location, at 14 Witherspoon Street, and signed the lease at the beginning of August; they began construction at the end of that same month, and opened Small World Coffee’s doors on December 23, 1993.
“[The name] Small World was Brant’s idea,” Durrie says. “The minute it came out of his mouth, we both knew that was it. He had an expat upbringing also, and we both knew while there are many different places [in the world], basically everybody has the same needs—and coffee’s one of them. It just resonates. We’re all in it together.”
The rest, as they say, is history: The 1993 opening was followed, in 1997, by the creation of Small World Roasters, with friend and employee Jon March, when Durrie and Cosaboom decided they wanted more control over the quality of the beans that made the whole Small World sing. Since then, a wholesale business has flourished, with clients near (Princeton University, Rutgers University, Whole Foods) and far (an off-the-grid bird-watching bed-and-breakfast in Mexico). The Witherspoon Street locale underwent a significant renovation and expansion, in 2001; and then, in 2006, the 254 Nassau Street outpost was added to the S.W.C. realm. The trio has been presented with additional opportunities to grow the brand, but they’re content with the carefully managed success they’re currently enjoying, a practice of refinement and improvement that aligns with the “lifestyle approach” they take to their business.
“We’ve been able to consistently deliver great coffee,” Durrie says. “So much of it goes back to running a business professionally, no matter how small you are. We have systems in place that many small businesses don’t spend the time developing, but because we have, every time customers open the door, they can predict what’s going to happen. They can rely on us.”
But as everyone who frequents the café knows, the magic of Small World is in more than just the coffee. The good juju, Durrie insists, is in the people who support the enterprise day in and day out. From general manager Vincent Jule, who’s been with the company for 16 years; to head trainer Tuc Sargentini, perhaps the most-recognized face behind the counter; to the cheerful baristas, Durrie trains all employees in the ways of the “Worldling,” giving them a full understanding of how the café operates and then empowering them to be their creative, authentic selves—even if that means dressing up as a unicorn (true story).
“In the 24 years we’ve been open, I’ve probably interviewed well over 10,000 people,” she says. “It’s not a perfect science, but somehow we always manage to have the right number of individuals who are curious, creative, quirky, and fun. It’s kept me younger being around them.”
From left: General manager Vincent Jule and head trainer and “the Buddha of Small World,” Tuc Sargentini.
Together, these ambassadors of Small World Coffee create a sense of belonging that extends behind the café’s walls and into the community, whether it’s through the rotating exhibitions of work by area artists and the weekly lineup of live entertainment, or the cadre of local entrepreneurs that have become part of a cooperative support network. Durrie, Cosaboom, and March work with local vendors including Lillipies and The Gingered Peach bakeries, Terhune Orchards, Tico’s Juice Bar, and Griggstown Farm; and also engage in open and ongoing dialogues with fellow business owners like those behind Jazams, The Bent Spoon, Labyrinth Books, and the Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop. Most importantly, however, Small World is a place that creates a sense of familiarity and trust, where people can come together, to interact and connect.
“Small World’s personality is the culture of the company: We are here to serve and take care of the public. To be a gathering spot for celebrations, for crises. To take in the wayward person and give them shelter,” Durrie says. “One of the first tenets I talk about with our staff is, ‘We are inclusive.’”
In December, Small World Coffee will turn 25, an anniversary Durrie acknowledges with a disbelieving shake of her head. S.W.C. aficionados, she says, can look forward to a slate of special events including an anniversary show, along with the unveiling of new S.W.C. packaging, a redesigned website, and a few other surprises.
“Princeton’s a little city, yet it’s cosmopolitan,” Durrie says, describing the town that has become home for not only her business but her family, as well. “You’ll hear so many languages in the café on any given day. And I love that. I love that Princeton has an international community. It’s a very brainy place.” She smiles and adds, “We picked the right town, man. We really did.” —Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Jess Blackwell)