M.E. Swing Coffee Roasters’ current facility in a bleak industrial section of Alexandria has been an increasing source of irritation for owner Mark Warmuth. The isolation from potential drive-by customers. The influx of auto body shops. The lack of parking.
He’s been looking to flee the space for years now, almost since he bought the historic Swing’s in 2006. But it wasn’t until this year that he found the right spot: the former Gold Crust Baking building at 501 E. Monroe Ave., in Alexandria. Warmuth signed a lease this summer.
The 9,600-square-foot space has almost everything Warmuth wants: more space for a coffee bar and a training/cupping lab, but also access to potential residential customers. A YMCA, a park, a grocery store and a pharmacy are all in the same general area, attracting scores of neighbors. Warmuth hopes to entice a few his way with the smell of freshly roasting coffee beans (although parking may still present a problem, because there aren’t many spaces at the new spot, either).
“Once we build it, there’s enough residential [traffic] that people will walk over and grab a bag of beans,” he says.
Warmuth intends to have his roasting operations up and running in the new space by late November or early December to “take care of our wholesale customers.” The 40-plus-seat coffee bar will open a month or two (or three) later, depending on how quickly Warmuth can navigate the permits maze of Alexandria.
The coffee bar will be about the same size as the M.E. Swing Coffee House on G Street NW, which the company opened in 1994. One of the selling points of the new java outlet will be its window onto the work of M.E. Swing itself: Customers will be able to watch the roasting process.
The coffee bar “will showcase what we do really well, which is roasting coffee,” Warmuth says. The coffee bar will also sell baked goods and perhaps specialty chocolates, all sourced from outside Swing’s; Warmuth is not sure whether the new place will sell tea, as the G Street store does. Coffee will be his main focus.
In this sense, the new Swing coffee bar will be one of the few places in the Washington area where customers will be able to sip, sample or buy beans freshly off the roast. Most of the gourmet coffee shops in the region, whether Peregrine Espresso or Northside Social, buy beans from wholesalers such as the North Carolina-based Counter Culture, which has dominated the D.C. market.
While Warmuth doesn’t plan to expand Swing’s wholesale roasting capacity — his beans can be found in more than 20 Whole Foods Markets in the area as well as at restaurants such as Matchbox — but he continues to expand his line of roasted beans. For decades after M.E. Swing opened for business in 1916, the company has been known for its blends such as the signature Mesco.
“When I took over the company, where we were strongest was with the blends,” says Warmuth, noting that blends are ideal for restaurants and retailers looking for consistency. But the coffee market has changed dramatically in the past decade or so, and single-origin beans (however that’s defined), roasted to a shade that brings out their best characteristics, are in higher demand among buyers. Warmuth has paid attention to the trend, and M.E. Swing sells a line of single-origin coffees from Latin America and Africa.
“We bring [the bean] in for a limited amount of time and see how it does,” Warmuth says. It just makes sense to the owner to follow this path. “We’re in the specialty coffee business,” he says.