Saturday, September 8, 2007

Down Home Empire-Port City Java

Unlike the rest of the world, Wilmington does not seem to be taken over by Starbucks. This is a surprise, since, according to my mom, every other week Wal-Mart closes at midnite to re-open a mega Wal-Mart at 1 am. Wilmington is full of chain stores and franchises and a drive down any of the major thoroughfairs will bear this out as there are numerous Hardees, TJ Maxx;, Barnes and Nobles, KFC' and of course Wal-Marts. Starbucks, however, does not seem to have a foothold in the community (yet). Why? My guess is that the Port City Java corporation has kept them at bay at least for now.

The first Port City Java opened around 1995 at a modest location near Tom's Drugs on Front Street. The then owner, Steve Cohen was its main asset as he seemed indefatigable and very, very cordial. The logo, branding and "style" of the place was pretty much the same then as it is now (if memory serves). Cape Fear Coffee and Tea was its main competition at that point, but somewhat lackluster ownership and an unwillingness to evolve helped PCJ (which definitely did evolve) become the "go to" coffee house in Wilmington within a couple of years.

According to the company's site there are now PCJ franchises in 9 states, 3 international sites and 13 seperate locations in Wilmington alone. The danger for the place is that the market will become saturated or they might water down the brand. For what it is worth, it does not seem to have happened so far.

Now, for the coffee, it is pretty good. The regular coffee is better than Starbucks, but the coffee drinks were uneven (I ordered Cafe Au Lait's at a couple of different PCJ's and they tasted very different). The interiors are typically warm with free wireless and comfortable chairs. Despite this comfort, the decor seems a bit dated (many locales in downtown Wilmington seems somewhat stuck in the 90's), however. Indeed, the location on 21 N. Front Street looks like a preserved set from the series Friends, circa 1993. The art, most of it local, is also surpisingly bad. Again, despite this there is much to recommend; the free wireless internet is a great feature and the baristas were typically pretty competent and quick (not a trait that the laid back Southern lifestyle displays on a regular basis).

Ironically enough, when Cohen opened the first PCJ in '95 there were rumors that he hoped that Starbucks would "buy him out" as a way to clear the decks for the ubiquitious Seattle chain to conquer the Port City. It hasn't happened yet.

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I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...


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