Coffee stand brews strong amid competition

Every day Temple students line up to order from the “Best Coffee and Hot Pretzels” stand at the northwest corner of Paley Library.

Inside, co-owner Fiana Gerzon, 51, takes the orders, while her husband and co-owner, Simon, 53, bakes the pretzels and brews the coffee.

Loyal customers come back day after day, sometimes more than once a day, to get their coffee fix or just to grab a snack before their next class. One after another they approach the counter – “a large coffee and a pretzel,” “medium coffee, cream, half sugar,” “these chips and a pack of Camels”- and the next in line steps forward to the smell of fresh coffee and baked pretzels, into earshot of the exotic music which is always playing.

Alex Shobaben, a junior film major, spent his freshman year wandering campus trying to find a decent cup of coffee until he arrived at the Gerzons’ stand. Now he stops there three times a day.

“It’s the best cup of coffee on campus, I tell everyone that,” Shobaben, 21, said. “And then I let them try it and they agree most of the time.”

Despite the arrival of the Starbucks on campus and the woes the coffee giant has given small coffee shops elsewhere, Simon is unafraid. He even boasts of an increase of about 100 customers a day since Starbucks opened.

Unlike Starbucks, the Gerzons’ stand lacks shelter or seating for its customers, allowing patrons the option of smoking in line and is open from 6 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 6 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. on Fridays. And their selection, in size, pales in comparison to the 30-plus blends offered by Starbucks.

A man with a mind for business, Simon said he doesn’t resent Starbucks and even admits the coffee is “not bad.” But he said he believes that the price (he charges $1 for a medium, equivalent to a “tall” at Starbucks, which goes for $1.50) and the quality of his product will keep his business afloat.

“The main idea for a self-employer like me and my wife is to please the customer, while for Starbucks it is to make money for the corporation,” Gerzon said.

The Gerzons take pride in their stand and put serious thought into every detail of the business, from the coffee to the music, and even down to the design and insulation of the cups they use.

They have operated their Temple stand for 14 years, but the quality of their product has stepped up a notch in the last five years since Fiana abandoned their other stand at Fifth and Chestnut streets to join her husband on Main campus.

Fiana said she had already roasted and brewed fresh coffee at home, but after tasting coffee on a trip to Mexico three years ago, she decided to start grinding it in the stand.

This September she finally made space in their tiny hut for an oven and began roasting beans every morning for her customers.

“In our business, the woman is the main engine of innovation,” said Simon, making light of former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’ infamous comments which questioned the innate abilities of women to perform in the sciences. But he bills himself as the scientist behind their special blend of coffee.

Brewed from a three-bean blend developed by Simon, water is never run through the grounds more than 10 seconds after grinding to ensure maximum flavor. As to what those beans are and their proportions, he said that’s a “100 percent commercial secret.” He revealed that it changes with the market, as variations in crops produce different flavors he alters his formula to account for them and that a portion is left un-roasted to create a smoother flavor.

Caffeine content is another factor where the Gerzons differentiate themselves from Starbucks. The roasting process the Gerzons’ use helps keep their coffee’s caffeine content low, which they said is healthier.

“If it’s good for me, it’s good for my customers,” Fiana said.

Junior sociology major Megan Young said she considers the Gerzons’ coffee “by far” the best on campus.

“I go every day, without fail, usually twice,” Young said. “[The music] is a little change of pace from all the rap you hear on campus.”

The music, like the coffee, is a constant work in progress. Serving customers while playing hundreds of albums, Fiana said they create a selection that represents the diversity of Temple’s student body.

The play list is determined by the needs of the customers. “[Sometimes in the evening] people need a boost, so I play some merengue or salsa,” Fiana said.

In the winter she keeps customers warm, in spirit at least, with Hawaiian and other music reminiscent of tropical climates.

Coffee hasn’t always been the Gerzons’ stock and trade. Before immigrating to the United States, they ran a retail flower business in Kiev, Ukraine. There, the Gerzons honed the business skills that would help them find good footing in America.

When flowers were going for three rubles (the country’s currency), Simon Gerzon bought 20,000 flowers in bulk and cut his price to one ruble. “The competition’s flowers went dead,” Gerzon said, adding that he gained a reputation for quality and value that made his business the largest in the city, selling more than 1 million flowers a year.

Success in the troubled Ukraine, a former country in the Soviet-bloc, was not enough for the Gerzons.

In 1991, as Ukraine gained its independence from Russia, they decided to immigrate to the United States, seeking a better life.

Through a network of contacts and friends, they found their way to Philadelphia, and eventually to Temple. The Gerzons don’t see many more changes in their future.

“We work six months a year, like students,” Fiana said. “We just enjoy life, money is not everything.”

At Temple the Gerzons found not only work, but an education for their children. Their two daughters, Julia, 32, and Alla, 23, graduated with honors from Temple.

“All our family is connected with Temple and we hope 10 years from now our grandson will come here.”

Patrick Landis can be reached at patrick.landis@temple.edu.

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