By Philip Sean Curran
On a typical day, the seats inside Small World Coffee are filled with people working on their Apple laptops, talking, drinking, or a combination of all three, in a place that has called Princeton home for 25 years.
In December 1993, Jessica Durrie and Brant Cosaboom opened a coffeehouse nestled on Witherspoon Street, near the campus of Princeton University. Since then they started a family, faced competition from national chains, ended their marriage and expanded their business, all while navigating the waters of changing customer tastes.
During a recent interview, Durrie, 53, and Cosaboom, 51, sat inside the company office reflecting on the past, present and future of a business they started when they were in their 20s.
It was right before the holidays, on Dec. 22, 1993, that Small World Coffee opened its doors at 3 p.m. Both remember the moment vividly.
“The tools were going out the back door, while customers were coming in the front door, literally,” said Durrie, who was working the cash register that day. “We waited not a second. We got our (certificate of occupancy), we opened the door.”
Like now, the line of customers formed to the door, she said. And the customers have kept coming ever since.
“For me the challenge is how do you keep being excellent,” he said. “I think there’s nothing magic. There are no secrets. It’s really just hard work and attention to detail … ”
Durrie spoke of that attention to detail that goes into the business, from paying attention to the people they hire, the customers they serve and the product they sell. In all, there are 43 employees, including one, Tuc Sargentini, who has been with Small World Coffee for 24 years.
A former social worker, he said he got burned out from that line of work. The wife of a friend who worked at Small World Coffee suggested he come work there. Turned down the first time he applied, he did not give up.
“I was persistent and I came back like a month later and asked,” he said. “And they gave me a shot, and it worked out.”
Today, his job is to train the new employees. With a Small World Coffee T-shirt on, he explained his longevity.
“It suits a lot of my needs,” he said, “but more importantly, it’s a great place to work.”
Yet there are challenges that come with running a small business, whether it be regulations from Trenton or dealing with the turnover of employees. Durrie said the turnover percentage for Small World Coffee is 40 percent each year, low for the industry.
“From the beginning, the very beginning, it’s been really difficult to find good employees and to stay staffed up and to get them through the training,” she said.
Vin Jule, a manager who has worked for Small World Coffee for 18 years, began his tenure at the same time he was a student at The College of New Jersey.
“It kept not being a bad job,” he said. “I felt cared for, I felt like I was part of a team, I felt like I was contributing something. The longer I was here, I felt like I was able to help others fully realize their roles here for however long they were going to be here.”
At Small World Coffee, he also met a co-worker who became his future wife.
Working at Small World Coffee comes with a language all its own. Customers on line will hear the employees call out “Joe to go” or “Cap to stay,” part of the company lingo. The training manual has about eight pages for drink calling.
“The employees have to learn this patterned language because we’re doing everything through memory,” Durrie said. “If it’s called out the same way all the time, your brain has an easier time processing it.”
Through the years, Small World Coffee added a second location, on Nassau Street, and a roasting facility in Rocky Hill. Further expansion is not in the plans, however.
Durrie said they get five to 10 proposals a year to open up cafes in other locations, but she said she “never wanted to be a big chain.”
“I think if we were going to do anything else,” she said, “it would have to really resonate with our sort of life goals, not just business goals.”
“I mean we both invested so much into it from the ground up,” said Durrie in reflecting on the trial and error that has happened along the way. “I think any business that’s been around for as long as we have or even been around for three to five years is going to make mistakes.”
They also assess the business climate around them, in a community with where retail has struggled and seemingly only food businesses open in town. Durrie said that “if it’s mostly food and less and less retail, then the foot traffic goes down.”
“And right now, the only people that can have any hope of paying the cost of the local rents are food service operations,” Cosaboom said.
Within a short walk from Small World Coffee’s Witherspoon Street location, there are two national coffee retailers, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Yet Durrie and Cosaboom have cultivated a loyal following.
“I think there is a very strong support-your-local-business attitude in Princeton that has been very nice,” he said. “The locals have been very supportive of us from the beginning.”
Despite the success, no one at Small World Coffee is planning to rest on his or her laurels. The employees here have a saying that you are as good as your last cup of cappuccino.
“I don’t walk into the cafe on any given day and sort of think like, ‘Oh, I’ve arrived, I can just chill out and appreciate the success,’ ” Durrie said. “Every day I feel like I need to contribute in some way, try to make something better and never look at that line out to the door and think, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re golden.’ You just can’t take it for granted.”