Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Natalie de Leon of Philz Coffee in Adams Morgan and learn what it is that drives her passion for the coffee biz. Below is a condensed version of our interview conducted between all of Natalie’s regulars (and their dogs) stopping to say hi. One asked if she just hung out at Philz even when she’s not working, to which her response was, “I mean, why would I go anywhere else?”
I’m very excited to meet you. It’s clear you’re really passionate about what you do.
I’ve been in the culinary industry, the restaurant industry since I graduated college. Any kind of work or product I put out it’s gonna be my best. And the best thing about coffee is – well, I didn’t start drinking it until I was in college – but once I found out what real coffee can be when I went to Spain, I loved it. I craved the flavors and the profile and a little bit of body, and then I found Philz where there’s actual texture to your coffee. In a sense it’s almost like wine, and I love wine and I love bourbon and the flavor profiles, and to do that with coffee…and then on top of that when someone tells you, “This is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had!” That’s saying something for a company that’s only been on the East Coast for what, 8 months now?
So you got into coffee in Spain?
That’s when I really started drinking it. I’m not gonna lie, I was born and raised Mormon, so I didn’t touch caffeine until I was a sophomore in college. I was drinking white mochas, and that’s what I knew as coffee. Then I went to Spain and all they had were café con leches – it’s a shot of beautiful espresso with some steamed milk and sugar, and I was like, “Oh my god, it has texture!” Like coffee can have texture and flavor, and it doesn’t have to taste bitter or overly sugary. And then I came back to the States, and I started drinking it [. . .] and it was just water. I actually didn’t really start enjoying coffee again until I moved to San Francisco, and I used to get red eyes because the espresso at Starbucks would balance out the bitterness of Pike’s for me.
Did you work for Philz when you lived on the West Coast?
I didn’t actually. I just worked for the restaurant industry, and I just went to Philz as a treat.
I was in the San Jose area, like South Bay, then I moved to Chicago. Honestly I’ve just been finding my place in life, and then when I was out here I was really getting into the restaurant industry. I was actually trying to become a chef, so that’s why flavors, quality control, texture, and I would say presentation are four of my really big concerns. And the fact that at Philz, the way we present our coffee is so important. To hear people say, “That’s so pretty!” At Starbucks I’m never going to hear, “Oh my god, that’s such a pretty caramel frap.” So originally I just wanted a morning job because in the kitchen you don’t make that much money, but actually Jacob, the CEO, Phil’s son – we all did personal interviews with him, whether it was in person or Skype or over the phone – they take a lot of care of the people they hire first off. There were about 300-400 people that applied, and only 20 of us got hired originally. Jacob wasn’t even sure he wanted to hire me because he said, “It seems like you’re really dedicated towards the restaurant industry, and we’re just opening up on the East Coast, and we really need someone there.” I’m like, “You know, I’m a great multitasker, I love having multiple things going on. Regardless if it’s full-time or part-time, I’m gonna work hard. I’m gonna put out what you teach me and help teach other people around me.” Then they gave me a chance, and now I’m not even in the restaurant industry anymore. I’m full-time here as a Shift Leader, and I’m actually looking into becoming an Assistant Store Leader, like an Assistant General Manager, when we open our third location.
So did you just think, “I’m familiar with Philz so I guess I’ll apply to this job?”
Yeah, it’s actually funny. I was walking right by here, and there was this big sign that said, “Philz Coffee coming soon!” And I was just applying to a bunch of different places. I don’t know, I feel like I’m a jack of all trades, so I was just trying to explore my options, and the biggest thing that got me attached to Philz was their culture and the way that they treat their employees. Honestly, I’ve been researching workplace bullying, and I realized that I’ve been in really crappy situations for the last two years. So the moment Philz said 1) we’re about our customers, 2) we’re also about hiring great people to do great things, and then overall, we’re about bettering people’s days one cup at a time… Taking the extra care, and caring about quality on top of caring about your employees and your customers, that’s honestly what made me want to work at Philz, and that’s why I’m still here almost a year later.
Jacob and Phil take good care of their employees. I think almost everyone knows Jacob pretty well at this store. He’s been back twice so far, and he’ll hop on bar, and he’ll literally walk outside and grab people saying, “You’ve got to try Philz Coffee. Come inside, come, come!” Before we even opened he would see people outside and bring them in just to try it. That’s what we do. That’s the Bay Area culture in a sense. In San Francisco if we see someone lost we’re gonna take the time to walk them to where they’re going. So we’re kind of breaking out of that “East Coast, don’t talk to me” vibe.
I think the most rewarding thing is to see how this community – Lanier Heights/Adams Morgan – has come together. It’s kind of crazy, I went from knowing nobody, and now when I walk up and down these streets people are like “Natalie! Hey, what’s up?” We have an employee who also lives in the community, and he says, “The reason why I love working at Philz other than loving my coworkers is that now I know people in my neighborhood.”
How’d you come to DC?
I was in Chicago doing a business marketing job, and they were expanding their offices out here to DC, and I was supposed to get promoted quicker if I expanded with them, but the office was being ran terribly [. . .] so I just decided to go full-on, full-fledged into the restaurant industry. And I realized there are a lot better opportunities out here than I’ve found anywhere else since college. There’s tons of jobs out here. Like I’m now coaching youth soccer – I’ve been playing since I was 5 – so that’s really awesome.
That’s so cool! What ages do you work with?
I work with ages 5 all the way to 13. But my main two teams are 7 and 9 year olds.
How do you find the time for that?
That’s the beauty about working at a coffee shop. 5:30-2 is my usual shift as a Shift Leader, and then I don’t usually start coaching until 4 or 5. And then it’s a couple hours, then I go home, then I do it all over again. It’s tiring, it’s exhausting, but it’s really rewarding to be a part of the community, to help build it. I just started an open mic night here on November 9, mostly for amateurs and non-performers who just want to get out there. So it’s been really cool. It’s been really cool to see this neighborhood develop.
I asked to spearhead all the events and stuff. So coffee tastings and open mics – those two are gonna be monthly – and we also do sunrise yoga [. . .] To find out about all this, we have an email list: firstname.lastname@example.org. I send out Eventbrites and reminders.
What do your coffee tastings look like?
What we do at the coffee tasting is we first go into Coffee 101 and kind of Philz 101 and what we do, the process of how we get our beans to where they are now. And then we talk about how to taste coffee: slurping, paying attention to the flavor profiles, and the way that it feels in your mouth.
We have single-origins, but our main coffees are all blends. They’re actually working on changing “light roast” to “light blend” because it’s not a roast, it’s a blend, a mix of everything. Actually, only Phil and Jacob know what the blends are, everything else is a little puzzle. Everyone has little pieces to the puzzle, but only Jacob and Phil have the full puzzle. I think that’s a really cool part of it, personally.
So when you’re not here and coaching youth soccer, what else do you like to do outside of Philz?
I play soccer, also. It’s hard to have time to do much else. Obviously I love to go to local bars, I like to do local events, but I will say Philz is a lot of my time, especially now that I’m spearheading events. So I don’t have much time for anything else, but if I did…I love to paint, I do traditional photography – I did all the polaroids that we have hanging in the store – I’m actually working on getting more decorations – I’m gonna do like a photo essay with Philz and Philz regs and our culture in a sense. I also love to Citi Bike. I’m a big Citi Biker when I’m not injured from playing soccer. I mean, anything that’s fun.
Considering you were raised Mormon, is your family confused that you’re now working in a coffee shop?
My mom is just really happy that I have two really great jobs.
Where do you see your relationship with coffee going from here?
I think eventually I want to end up back in California. Actually, I think Philz is gonna expand so much out here…there’s a Forbes article about how we’ve made a $40 million investment for our East Coast expansion, especially in Boston, so we’re eventually going to have to open up our own warehouse and get our own roastery out here [. . .] I definitely want to be a Store Leader, ASL (Assistant Store Leader) for the third location, but I might want to overlook the East Coast area…it’s easy to get into that East Coast vibe and forget where Philz came from, and the Bay Area in a sense is very unique in itself. I feel like I am California. There’s nothing I can do to make myself not California, and I want to share that with other East Coast people over here who may not know exactly what Philz is. I see a bright future with Philz [. . .] I love our leadership. And when you have leadership you can believe in and you know that believe in you and what you’re doing, your potential is limitless. Philz has a really bright future over here, and I’m excited to be a part of it from the very beginning.
Thanks to Natalie for being our featured barista for November. It’s her birthday month, so be sure to swing by Philz, grab yourself a Silken City (it’s delicious- combination of New Manhattan and Silken Splendor, one of Natalie’s favorite concoctions and exclusively at the AdMo location) and wish her a happy birthday!