How Brew HaHa!'s Alisa Morkides Created a Coffee Empire

Morkides has done more than create a hip coffee shop. She has nearly cornered the market on community.

Comfortably seated below a bricolage of some 30 framed works of art, and leaning against the distressed emerald upholstery of a 20-foot banquette, Alisa Morkides is riding the third wave of coffee.

As she peers out from behind a pair of Jackie-Os at her recently relocated Greenville store, the room vibrates with the caffeinated buzz of lunchtime conversation. In the evening, the lights will dim as the after-work crowd gathers for drinks at the café’s new full-service bar, but at the moment, on a brilliant afternoon, the space is all light, art and the aroma of coffee.

The Greenville store is one of nine distinct Brew HaHas Morkides has created since 1993. She had found herself, midway through life’s journey, wandering the Tuscan countryside, asking herself, “Should I be a boring financial planner?”

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Morkides was ready for an epiphany. She found it sipping coffee on a terrazzo in Fiesole. She came back to Delaware just as the second wave of coffee was cresting and opened the first Brew HaHa.

Coffee’s first wave established the drink as a consumer product, branded and marketed for the American household with images of Juan Valdez and his mule. The second wave reintroduced coffee as a drink to be savored in a dedicated space—Starbucks, in a word. Now, the third wave, specialty coffee, calls for artisanal crafting and epicurean appreciation. Forget the little paper cup with a picture of the Parthenon. The specialty coffee movement seeks nothing less than the apotheosis of the bean.

Specialty coffee makes up more than half of the $48 billion coffee market in the United States. Like the farm-to-table trend and craft-beer industries, the specialty coffee movement is a bean ripe for the picking, so Morkides ventured into manufacturing, starting Brandywine Coffee Roasters at her Trolley Square location. The facility roasts up to 1,800 pounds a week, supplying product to all of her shops and 32 cafés across the country.

But for Morkides, coffee is only one part of a goal, an experience for customers that is unique to the community she calls home, yet inspired by the feeling of Elysian contentment she felt in Tuscany. The experience requires a space, a mise-en-scène for the quality of life. “Time stops,” says Morkides, “when I think about designing a space.” She likens that part of the business to poetry, and she is Edwardian in her attention to detail and taste. 

“There are two kinds of people: those who don’t mind simple, overhead lights, and those who think they’re anathema,” jokes Morkides. The eclectic array of chandeliers, pendants and table lamps hints at the level of obsession she brings to this one aspect of designing, and redesigning, her cafés. (The Newark location is currently under renovation.)

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A bold, Baroque damask wallpaper in gold and black, kitchen tables with breadboard tops, salvaged wooden corbels, contemporary upholstered seating—the plush of a country club with a whiff of steampunk: All of this creates a decorative sum greater than its individual elements. She keeps the phone number of her reclaimed lumber supplier on speed dial.

Photo by Carlos Alejandro

Many of her best design ideas come during walks along the Brandywine, walks she often shares with her director of operations, Ally McKenney, and her principal at Brandywine Coffee Roasters, Todd Purse. The beauty of the Brandywine represents a kind of homecoming for Morkides, a way to celebrate what is northern Delaware. 

She did not, however, always want to be here. The daughter and granddaughter of DuPont chemists, she was expected to go to college, become a chemist, then marry one. She earned the degree, and after working in the field, became a financial analyst. But she always wanted to be elsewhere—Paris, California, someplace exotic. She chuckles at the phrase that nearly became the official motto of Wilmington: “So Close to Where You Want to Be.”

“Growing up, I felt like a fish out of water,” she says. “I never fit in. What I think is so great is, I finally do. I finally feel connected. In coming back here in ’92, I found what was beautiful about this place.”

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If Italy provided the catalyst, it was the natural splendor and close-knit community of the Brandywine Valley that provided Morkides with the substance of her dream: “A place where people catch up, where people connect, where they create business, meet and get married—the center of the community—that’s what I want,” Morkides says.

She has the loyal customers to prove her success.

“Where do you want your big, round table?”

Jill Abbott recalls this as the first question Morkides asked her and a group of regulars when redesigning the Greenville store. The “roundtable” group of fiercely loyal customers has been meeting to begin their days over coffee and conversation for 20 years. On this day, members of the roundtable busy themselves with the work of fellowship. They arrive and depart like energetic bees on the disk of a sunflower.

The group is decidedly Wilmingtonian in pedigree. Early to the table are Joe Miller, who served as both director of central research and development and chief science and technology director at DuPont, and Abbott, the senior event planner at Winterthur for the past 20 years. Francine Solomon, a retired attorney, joins a bit later. Noticeably missing are the Hon. Calvin Scott, judge of the Superior Court of Delaware, and Dick Quisenberry, former vice president for central research at DuPont.

It’s a brainy group, and because the median age is a bit north of retirement, the pop and crackle of newspapers mixes with the voices around the table. Cell phones come out too, but only when a question arises, and only because Quisenberry is not present. “We call him Wikipedia,” says Abbott. “He knows everything.”

Any topic is fair game for conversation, but a few folks gravitate toward sports. Lou Romanoli played semi-pro baseball. John Bove spent more than 30 years in athletics at Penn State. They and the others are anxious for Ruly to arrive and give his analysis of last night’s ball game. On cue, Robert Ruliph Morgan “Ruly” Carpenter III, owner of the 1980 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, steps to the table, a pint of coffee dwarfed in his right hand.

He takes his seat, and this morning he’s laconic. “Good pitching will always beat good hitting,” he says before turning his attention to his newspaper.

The others nod. A card gets passed around for a member who has recently undergone surgery. In time, the discussion turns to the Brandywine Valley. All agree they are fortunate to enjoy the region’s stunning scenery, its history and its legacy of culture.

Abbott, originally from New York, champions that heritage in her role at Winterthur, but she clearly plays a similar role within the roundtable group, building community through outings and dinner parties. “We have a common bond. I can’t start my day without coming here,” she says. The roundtable group nods its assent. “We look forward to it,” adds Romanoli.

Romanoli is as Wilmingtonian as they come. When asked where he is from, he replies simply, “St. Anthony’s.” To describe his hometown, he borrows an idiomatic expression from Italian: vivere in un ventre di vacca—to live in the belly of the cow. It’s a way of saying “comfort through abundance.”

The coffee bean itself is a seed, one of two that form within a drupe, or cherry, which itself forms behind the white flower of an evergreen shrub. The genus Coffea produces about 100 different species, but only two produce the salutary beverage: C. canephora (robusta) and C. arabica, the latter producing the superior brew.

At the Brandywine Coffee Roasters facility in the rear of the Trolley Square store, only C. arabica finds its way into the stainless steel Loring S15 convection roaster. The gleaming apparatus looks more suited to landing on the moon than to roasting coffee. The only indicator to its proper function is a 4-inch circular window that allows a view of the agitated beans, which fall in perpetual, circular waves, like little green garments in a clothes dryer.

The machine churns away in the center of an airy space that possesses the rustic charm of an old stone barn. Appointed with a tree-stump pedestal table, exposed brick walls, wainscoting of rough-cut siding, polished concrete floors and hanging Edison bulbs, the facility exudes a palpably hip vibe. This is high-tech artisanal roasting in a re-creation of the Brandywine’s agrarian past.

At the helm stands Purse. Wearing a pumpkin-striped sweater with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, he is the millennial foil to the baby boomer Morkides. She calls him a sommelier. Judging by the giddy ebullience with which he shares his encyclopedic knowledge, he loves the product.

If DuPont Ph.D.s frequent the Greenville location, it is Purse, a graduate of Delaware College of Art and Design, who holds forth like an emeritus professor of chemistry, talking ratios of grams-to-milliliters, sugars and acids, extraction profiles, mucilage, fermentation and soluble solids. He hosts “lab hangs” every Saturday at the Trolley Square location, giving out samples and talking all things coffee.

To test product, Purse produces a refractometer, which resembles a Star Trek communicator, and feeds it a sample of brewed coffee. Then he swings a computer screen into view and begins swiping, taping and expanding windows, manipulating the touch screen as though he were the high-tech hero of an action flick, isolating the sample’s proximity to his extraction target.

In comparison to the inky, corpulent stuff that seems ubiquitous, the coffee he passes out tastes like fine tea.

If Morkides has a formula for the perfect coffee shop, it seems simply to begin with art: the quality of product, the aesthetics of space, the craft of community.

On the wall of art back in Greenville, large and prominent near the center, hangs a collage of Edward Hopper’s work. The standout image is “Nighthawks,” an iconic expression of space and loneliness. A man and a woman sit together at the center of the composition, but in spite of their proximity, they seem alone and alienated. Near them on the counter stand two mugs and two outsized coffee urns. This painting presents the obverse of the convivial scene playing out within Brew HaHa, a scene at which Morkides smiles from her seat, perhaps reflecting on Tuscany or the Brandywine, but probably planning the next steps for her homegrown business.

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