Jensen remembers crafting an email to turn down the offer, citing his relationship with Chinatown owner Max Brown, a fellow traveler in the D.C. specialty coffee world. "Before I sent the email," Jensen says, "La Colombe announced they were going to open on the same block."
To Brown, the decisions made by Peregrine and La Colombe underscore the differences between a small specialty coffee company based in Washington (Peregrine) and a large one that's not (La Colombe calls Philadelphia home). Small local players, each familiar with the other, tend to follow a set of unwritten rules when it comes to business, and one of those, Brown notes, is you don't open near a competitor.
But a behemoth like La Colombe, with its massive infusion of investor capital and plans to open 100 stores nationwide in five years, has no incentive to concern itself with the tiny coffee shops that operate in its hulking shadow, says Brown, who served as legal counsel and deputy chief of staff in Mayor Anthony Williams's administration.
"It's like in baseball," says Brown. "When you're up seven runs, you don't steal. When you're up by 31 points, you don't throw the ball. There's just some basic courtesies."
"But they're from Philadelphia," he adds. "There's no courtesy there." (Brown punctuates his comments by resuscitating a nearly 50-year-old incident that Philly may never live down: The game at which dejected Eagles fans booed Santa and pelted him with snowballs.)
Jensen is just as pointed. "La Colombe isn't interested in Max Brown and Ryan Jensen or the D.C. coffee world," he says. "They don't need to respect those rules."
Brown will be the first to tell you his argument is loaded. He, Jensen and others in the D.C. specialty coffee world operate in a capitalist system that fosters competition and swats down attempts to limit it. In fact, you can find plenty of examples of local coffee shops that have ignored — or perhaps weren't even aware of — this unwritten rule not to locate your business near a competitor.
Just look at Jensen's plight on 14th Street NW. When he opened a second location of Peregrine at 1718 14th St. NW in 2011, Jensen pretty much owned the market along the corridor. Nearly five years later, Peregrine shares the neighborhood with the Wydown, Slipstream, the Coffee Bar and Dolcezza, all of which deal in specialty coffee to one degree or another.
"When they were all opening, I was a cheerleader," Jensen says, "but at the same time, I was like, 'Can't you find someplace else?'"
Fall 2014 was toughest on Peregrine, Jensen says. The Wydown, Dolcezza and Slipstream would all open within months of each other, and it affected Peregrine's bottom line. The store suffered about a 10 percent drop in sales.
"It took months for us. . . to get back to where we were before," Jensen says. "It wasn't fun while it happened."
Some in the specialty coffee world still adhere to this notion, no matter how romantic, that their business is deeply rooted in community. Coffeehouses, after all, have historically served as so-called third spaces, or places where people could gather, drink and debate outside of home and work. People like Brown and Jensen take their role in the coffee community seriously. They don't appreciate when outsiders want to take a slice of their pie.
"What I've always loved about coffee is that it's a community experience, and if you look at it as primarily a profit model, then it just changes the whole character of the thing," says Jensen, who opened Peregrine with his wife, Jill Jensen. "What drew us to this in the first place was not making money. It was community. We met in a coffee shop," Ryan Jensen says about he and Jill. "You have to make money in the end, but hopefully you can balance both of those."
If you explain all of this to Todd Carmichael, the adventurer, activist and co-founder of La Colombe, he'll just shake his head in frustration. At least that's the image I conjured as we spoke by phone. Not only did La Colombe open its second D.C. coffee shop in November, after marking its District debut in 2014, but the roaster has been supplying beans to local restaurants and shops for years.
La Colombe, in other words, is part of the D.C. coffee community, Carmichael says. Besides, the D.C. coffee market is not some stagnant pool; as long as condominiums and apartments continue to sprout like mushrooms, there will be more coffee drinkers who need their java fix, the closer to home the better.
"It's too bad I offended Max," Carmichael says, "but I felt like there are people who need my coffee, so I came."
The bad news for people like Jensen and Brown is that more outsiders are on the way. San Francisco-based Philz Coffee already has plans to open shops in Adams Morgan and the Navy Yard. Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee, recently purchased by Peet's Coffee & Tea, has its eye on the District. And La Colombe isn't finished with Washington, either. Carmichael talks about ultimately operating four or five shops in the D.C. market.
Jensen, for one, hopes these outsiders look for new neighborhoods where specialty coffee shops remain rare, rather than focusing on the trendy locations such as Shaw and 14th Street.
"There are still a lot of converts to be had," Jensen says. "So let's focus on those parts of the city."
Everything you wanted to know about coffee but were too wired to ask: