by Steven Felschundneff | email@example.com
Most people traveling along Indian Hill Boulevard in the Village undoubtedly noticed the strange announcement on the Laemmle Claremont’s marquee: “Now open The Reverse Orangutan coffee shop.”
Come again? What exactly is a “Reverse Orangutan?” First, it’s the name of a pop-up coffee shop that has taken over the Laemmle’s lobby while the theater is closed due to the coronavirus. Second it’s the credo of sorts for the two young entrepreneurs behind the new venture.
“The reverse orangutan is an homage to a chess move. In the 1920s there was a chess game played at the Bronx Zoo and one of the players consulted an orangutan about what his first move should be,” Jamil Radney, co-owner of the coffee shop said. “Our business philosophy is that the world has already made its first move, so all we can do is a counter offensive.”
Mr. Radney, 30, and Geoffrey Clark, 28, opened their first The Reverse Orangutan at 440 East Route 66 in Glendora back in December of 2018. According to Mr. Clark, business has been good, in spite of the challenges this year. They have expanded the Glendora location to include coffee roasting, and officially opened the Claremont location on September 5.
The menu features a complete list of espresso-based coffees including lattes and cappuccinos. They also offer cold press coffee, chai latte, hot tea and a modest selection of sweet and savory pastries. Starting this weekend they will feature a curated offering of beer and wine for package and take-out sales only.
They also have revolving menu items with flavor profiles and ingredients that change with the weather or the seasons. Currently they offer the colada horchata which is a coconut cream inspired horchata latte.
“It kind of has those notes of fall spices but still has a really summery vibe so its nice to drink on these hot days,” Mr. Clark said.
“We put our heart and soul into putting together a strong coffee program, that represents different varietals and different processes from around the world, and roast them to give each its own character. That is what makes us different from our competitors. It’s also what we feel most proud of. For us, everything is built on the foundation of really good coffee,” Mr. Clark said.
The huge space that The Reverse Orangutan now occupies has two-story tall walls of glass on the south and east that fill the space with light. Due to health department regulations, they offer no indoor seating, however, directly out the shop’s front doors is the Village Expansion’s public square with ample socially distanced tables, chairs and benches.
Mr. Radney formerly worked at the Cheese Cave and is a regular around town, so he was familiar with the Laemmle and recognized that the theater had a great location in the Village that, unfortunately, sat idle. The space was intriguing so the two businessmen reached out to the Laemmle family to see if the coffee shop idea would be a good fit.
They hope to keep the shop open if and when the theater starts showing films again. Mr. Clark said that most theaters are idle in the morning anyway, so why not run a coffee shop? Plus, people taking in a matinee show might prefer a coffee and a pastry over traditional movie theater food.
For Mr. Radney and Mr. Clark being ethical and principled owners and employers are core tenets of their business model.
On Labor Day they held a pop-up in the Glendora location, donating all proceeds to the former baristas of Augie’s Coffee with the goal of supporting their efforts to unionize.
The event was also billed as an opportunity to have a conversation about labor relations and unionization which they said seemed appropriate for Labor Day. They also offer health benefits to their seven employees which is rare for such a small business.
They have also donated money to Fair Fight, to help create fair and democratic elections. They also held a food drive for Shepherds Pantry and donated to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“We have been lucky to have this platform that we get to build our business on and we wanted to make sure we were using that to help others as well,” Mr. Clark said.
Mr. Radney agreed adding: “These are some of the things employers should be doing to make a more equitable workplace for everybody, so we are able to provide health benefits for our team and are happy to find ways to make us better employers.”
Their principals also dictate how they source the coffee. One might assume that they would only buy fair trade and organic beans, however, those two programs involve a certification process that also includes a fee which can put small farmers at a disadvantage. As a result, Mr. Radney likes to source directly from the growers.
“Fair trade is great, organic certification is great. I think they are wonderful programs. But there are lots of ways to source really great beans in an ethical way,” Mr. Radney said. “On [one bean purchase] we talked to a farmer exclusively over Instagram face chat and found a way to get him a price that was more advantageous than going through a fair trade system.”
Business has been good at the Claremont location, with their soft opening on August 29 drawing a large crowd of loyal followers. Since then the shop has been busy, with the exception of the last week due to the poor air quality and intense heat keeping most shoppers out of the Village.
Asked about running and even expanding a business during the pandemic, Mr. Clark said that the ability to pivot is the name of the game for 2020.
“Everybody went into this year with certain hopes and expectations for [our] personal and professional lives and its been pretty much a railroad with trains that keeps falling off the tracks since March. Something happens every month, it seems, and how you pivot, how you adapt and how you become excited for change versus scared about it has been a defining factor for a lot of people in this year,” Mr. Clark said.
Mr. Radney has noticed a coming together within the community, including the city of Claremont, to support local businesses, with the recognition that the Claremont Village is something special that is worth investing time and money into.
“Throughout COVID the response of citizens and how they respond to their community has been very much actualized. The city rolled out the al fresco [program] and is trying to find ways that the community is able to come together and do it in a safe way. Seeing the way that citizens and their community can respond and have conversations about things I think is long overdue and good dialogue that people are having,” he said.
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