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Coffee & Conversation at Brew HaHa!

By / Photography By Ben Fournier | September 13, 2017
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Alissa Morkides’ personal charm and her love of Tuscan gathering places (and all things coffee!) comes through in each of her neighborhood cafes across the Brandywine valley.

In northern Delaware, Brew HaHa! is the place where seemingly everybody knows your name. On a recent Wednesday morning, it was hard for a visitor to navigate through the maze of tables without stopping to chat with at least three people she knew. Entrepreneurs were holding informal meetings over lattes, friends were catching up over black coffee, and people were typing on laptops while sipping cappuccinos. “Will you watch this while I use the restroom?” one asked the people at the neighboring table. The answer is always: “Of course.”

It’s easy to spot Alisa Morkides’ blond curly tresses in the crowd. The founder of Brew HaHa! is one of the coffee shop’s best customers, and the patrons know her personally, or they’ve seen her photo in the magazines and newspaper stories that call her the “creator of a coffee empire” and “queen of the cappuccino.”

Morkides, who started the business without industry experience, is also an inspiration. The winner of a Cornerstone Award from the Delaware Restaurant Association, she’s been a featured speaker at TEDx Wilmington and business meetings.

“I have the utmost respect for her and everything that she’s done,” says Greg Vogeley, the owner of Drip Café in Hockessin, who worked with Morkides as a barista trainer. “She is that classic American idea of ‘I’m going to get this done. I’m going to figure it out. I have determination, and gosh, darn it, I’m going to do it.’”

FOR THE LOVE OF LATTES

Born in Alabama, Morkides has spent most of her life in Delaware. Her father worked for the DuPont Company, and Morkides, who went to Wilmington Friends School, was going to follow in the family footsteps. Many of her relatives were adept at math and science.

After graduating from Bucknell University, where she majored in chemistry, she became a bench chemist. Frustrated with that job, she earned her MBA from the University of North Carolina.

When she started a job in Philadelphia that forced her to wake up at 4 a.m., coffee became a necessity. In those days, coffee, hot chocolate and even chicken soup all came out of a machine.

In the mid-1980s, however, Philly patrons began frequenting new shops with espresso-based drinks. She became so enchanted that she and her husband honeymooned in Seattle in 1987. At that time, the hip city was home to a plethora of coffee shops with hissing machines, art-covered walls and music. At home, Morkides was so addicted to good coffee that she took her espresso machine on camping trips.

The birth of BrewHaHa! could be a scene right out of a novel. Morkides was vacationing in Italy with the plan of returning home and opening a financial planning business. “It was the safest thing,” she says of the job choice, “but it was very boring.”

On vacation, she found herself drawn to the Italian cafes, both for the coffee and the convivial culture. “I was so inspired,” she recalls. “It was simple and elegant and quality-driven—the whole experience just got to me.” Looking out over the hills of Tuscany, she had an “aha moment.” Why not go back to Delaware and open such a shop?

PICKING UP STEAM

The first Brew HaHa! restaurant opened in Powder Mill Square in Greenville in 1993. From the start, longtime residents told her it reminded them of Johnson’s Pharmacy, whose bustling lunch counter was once the center of the community.

Morkides quickly expanded. At its peak, there were 15 locations, including seven in Pennsylvania. With a new child, it soon became too much to handle. In the early 2000s, she narrowed her focus to Delaware.

Today, there are eight full-service locations and two kiosks in the Christiana Hospital. Of the eight sites, the Greenville cafe has a bar and expanded menu; the Trolley Square restaurant—located in a city section in Wilmington—holds the Brandywine Coffee Roasters operations, which she started in 2015 to service the restaurants, as well as wholesale and retail customers.

All the locations share the same logo and coffee menu. The food menus are similar although the new Greenville cafe has more selections and a bar. (This fall, some of the Greenville salads will make their way onto other Brew HaHa! menus.)

The décor, however, is decidedly different at each location. “I want it to look like the surrounding community,” says Morkides. The Greenville café’s mix of sophistication and tag sale finds would look at home surrounded by antiques shops in Old City in Philadelphia. There are crystal chandeliers, a collage of framed artwork, tufted chairs and sofas, and a bistro-like countertop.

In Trolley Square, the décor is more rustic with a stone fireplace, exposed ductwork and reclaimed wood. It pays homage to the area’s old mills and manufacturing, as well as the Brandywine Valley School of artists.

“Every location has its own charm,” says customer Briana Hansen of Wilmington. “Trolley is a great spot for meetings and is seemingly the social hub for everyone living/working in the Trolley and Triangle area. Greenville gets major props for the table service and live music.” The location in Wilmington’s business district, she says, is “fast and friendly.”

In North Wilmington, the Branmar Shopping Center site is “very much our local Arden coffeehouse,” says Ron Ozer, who lives in Arden, a community nearby known for artists.

BLAZING NEW FRONTIERS

Both Greenville and Trolley Square sites moved from their original spaces to new locations in their respective shopping centers. Greenville, which was the flagship, morphed into the café, which gave Morkides a chance to explore an expanded menu with healthy fare and a Middle Eastern influence. The spot is popular for happy hour.

Trolley’s spacious digs can accommodate Brandywine Coffee Roasters. Owning a wholesale coffee business is different than owning a coffee shop, but Morkides was intrigued. Like craft beer, coffee has devotees who debate subtle nuances, she says. And like wine, coffee beans have a flavor profile depending on their origin. Roasting techniques can bring out unique flavors. The coffees all have custom art on the packaging created by Todd Purse, who is the head of creative and wholesale development.

Between the roasting operations and the restaurants, Morkides says, “my whole life revolves around coffee.” The sole owner, she spends her day coming up with new programs, handling balance sheets and putting out any fires, such as leaky pipes. “It’s not glam,” she says. But, she adds, she is living her dream.

She’s not worried that Ninja and Nespresso will take customers away from her restaurants. As adequate as these home machines are, they’re never as good as a professional machine. “I should know—that’s why I started the business,” she says.

What’s more, the recipe for Brew Haha!’s success does not depend on coffee alone.

“Coffee is the glue,” she agrees, “but it’s really about the people.”

> Brew HaHa! Trolley Square, 1400 N. DuPont Street, Wilmington; 302-384-6344; 8 more locations in Delaware; brewhaha.com

Article from Edible Delmarva at http://edibledelmarva.ediblecommunities.com/drink/coffee-conversation-brew-haha
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