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Kahwa and Buddy Brew lead the charge of Tampa Bay's coffee revolution

A good cup of joe wasn't always easy to find in the Tampa Bay area.

Take it from Billy Hutchings, a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur. He has traveled all over the country for work and always stops to sample the local espresso.

"If you see a roaster in-house, that's a telltale sign the coffee is going to be better than Starbucks," Hutchings said Thursday from a couch inside Buddy Brew Coffee on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa. "It's all about the appreciation of the craft. The people here are taking the time to make this special cup for us."

Similar to the craft beer movement that has exploded in Tampa Bay, locally roasted coffee is on the up-and-up. The people here demand a better cup of coffee, and they're willing to go out of their way to find it.

"Coffee has its own culture now. Starbucks was so 2005. This next generation — the millennials — want their own identity when it comes to coffee," said Brian Connors of Connors Davis Hospitality, a global food and beverage consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale. "Similar to wine, coffee nerds appreciate the taste. And they want their money to go back into a community they feel a part of."

It's part of an antichain movement that rose from the ashes of the Great Recession in Tampa Bay, which has since inspired a vibrant and bustling food and culture scene. Hyde Park, Seminole Heights and downtown St. Petersburg have benefited from chef-inspired restaurants, local breweries and new bars known for their complicated but intricate craft cocktails. Local coffee shops and roasteries are moving into those neighborhoods, too.

"The recession was the best thing that happened to Tampa Bay," said Dave Ward, co-owner and co-founder of Buddy Brew Coffee. "The recession changed how people spend their money. They want to spend where it will support their community. They know the big boys don't care about them."

Ward quit his job in real estate in 2007 to pursue the coffee business full time. His wife, Susan Ward, left her job in pharmaceutical sales in 2010 to join him. They began by roasting coffee in their Hyde Park home, but the business has since grown into a Tampa coffee shop and roastery, a mobile coffee truck, a coffee bar inside the hip Oxford Exchange and a partnership with a restaurant in downtown Sarasota. The Wards plan to open a new store in Hyde Park Village and Tampa's Kuhn Honda dealership this year.

In addition to Buddy Brew, the other coffee business gaining momentum in Tampa Bay is Kahwa Coffee, which Raphael Perrier opened in 2006. Perrier said he saw a wide-open market in St. Petersburg. He started in an office with a roaster, selling to restaurants and wholesalers.

"The coffee scene was nonexistent then," Perrier said. "We'd brew our own in the office during the week, but there was no place to go on the weekends just to enjoy coffee."

He opened his first cafe in St. Petersburg in 2008. Perrier now operates seven coffee shops around Tampa Bay and has three new ones in the works, including one with a drive-through on 38th Avenue N in St. Petersburg. You can buy his coffee in K-cup form just like the big chains. He has an 8,000-square-foot office where he roasts coffee and specializes in creating new blends from beans sourced all over the world.

"I think we brought something to the area that just wasn't happening here yet," Perrier said. "There used to be only chains in Tampa everywhere you looked, but it's not like that anymore. The people were looking for local coffee shops."

Both homegrown brands, Buddy Brew and Kahwa, have big plans that will take them beyond Tampa Bay. Perrier has his eyes set on Jacksonville and Miami next.

"We're trying to go after Starbucks," Perrier said.

Buddy Brew, too, sees an opportunity to grow its retail, wholesale and e-commerce business.

"We didn't start this business with the intention to be a mom-and-pop shop," Ward said.

The competitive edge has fueled some rivalry between the brands, as Kahwa has three Tampa area stores but Buddy Brew has yet to move into St. Petersburg. Both names will have a presence in downtown Sarasota soon.

But how big is too big? Especially when the "cool factor" that has helped bolster their success is based on the idea of buying from a local company?

"It's a tough game. Everyone is trying to ease out the market share that they can," said Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation for Technomic, a food research firm in Chicago. "There's a growing number of consumers that want to support the small business over the corporate chain, but Starbucks doesn't catch a lot of that. They're good to their people and try to source fair trade products."

Tom Enright stumbled upon Buddy Brew Coffee while visiting from Atlanta. He wasn't interested in taking a trip to Florida and visiting a chain retailer. He said he likes Buddy Brew's atmosphere.

"Spending your money in local places makes you feel like you're a part of something bigger," he said.

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] Follow @SunBizGriffin.

Kahwa and Buddy Brew lead the charge of Tampa Bay's coffee revolution 07/12/15 [Last modified: Sunday, July 12, 2015 9:55pm]
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