Uncompromising taste inspires loyalty and new plans next door.
Think you know Martin City Coffee? Even regular customers may be surprised to learn there’s much more to it than meets the eye (and taste bud!) One year after the neighborhood coffee shop opened its doors, entrepreneur Penny Romero remains focused on roasting a rich experience while planning a new venture right across the parking lot at 131st and Holmes.
Penny Romero and co-owner Rick Ramsey were well prepared for their grand opening last October. Coffee, food and 10 employees were ready to go. The only thing that caught them off guard was the excitement!
“It was pretty scary,” says Romero. “I didn’t know what to expect and suddenly the place was packed. All I could do was jump in and get to work doing anything and everything. Momentum has been building ever since. Fortunately, I’m starting to cut back now a little on my 16 hour days.”
A Love of Coffee with Deep Roots
When you meet Penny Romero, you immediately get a sense of her natural empathy and kindness. She’s easy-going and easy to talk to, reflecting sort of the ideal image of a coffee shop owner. However, it’s her background that really makes her right for the job. A life that’s stretched from South America to South Kansas City has equipped her with a special ability to understand business, relationships, food and of course, coffee.
“I knew Martin City Coffee would make it if the coffee is really, really good,” says Romero. “Just try it and you’ll see.”
Good coffee is among her earliest memories. The beans, the flavor, and that unmistakable aroma were key ingredients of her childhood. Her grandparents are natives of the Dominican Republic and her father was born in Venezuela. She says both cultures left her with a deep appreciation of everything coffee.
“I grew up in those countries drinking espresso. I remember when I was as young as first grade, my mom would send me to school with coffee and milk in my lunch box. That’s just how it was done. My whole family is really big into coffee and it’s always at the heart of our get-togethers. They were all so proud to hear that I was starting my own coffee shop.”
When it came to choosing a coffee supplier for Romero’s budding business, her experience pointed to Intelligentsia. She says an expert recommended the brand.
“That expert was my mom. She had tried it and loved it. I had the same reaction. It immediately became my favorite. Intelligentsia gives you consistently great coffee in every cup. The company is very selective and maintains close relationships with coffee bean farmers. That’s important to me.”
It may be hard to believe, but even though Romero grew up in a world of coffee and developed a discerning palate, she’s not a barista. She says she leaves that responsibility to the pros like her daughter Savannah, a seasoned Martin City Coffee barista. Romero’s son, Ty, is also part of the family business, working as a cashier and administrative assistant.
A Taste for High Standards
Adding a little food to the menu is a typical idea for new coffee shop owners. However, Martin City Coffee is not your typical coffee shop and that includes the food, starting with the pastries! Romero says pastries are the only menu items not made in her kitchen, but that doesn’t mean she’s compromising.
“I searched for the best pastries available and when I sampled The Kansas City Baking Company my search ended. That’s all it took. You can’t beat the taste.”
Beyond pastries, Romero and her team work hard handcrafting food that you probably don’t expect from a coffee shop. Much of it is inspired by flavors from Romero’s childhood, like the popular Venezuelan Breakfast Arepa; a grilled corn flatbread stuffed with hearty ingredients. Cuban Toast, Cuban Sandwiches and a Paleo Bowl splashed with fresh garden colors are also among menu favorites.
If you try just one culinary creation at Martin City Coffee, you might make it the Breakfast Burrito.
“People just love them,” says Romero. “We sell more Breakfast Burritos than probably anything. They’re a big, big hit and made from scratch in our kitchen, including the tortillas. That’s not easy to do.”
Even the salsa and pico de gallo are handcrafted. That gives you an idea of just how high the standards are at Martin City Coffee. And Romero says those standards are not limited to coffee and food.
“I’m committed to minimizing waste. You wouldn’t believe how much trash a coffee shop can send to landfills. That’s why I try to make everything at Martin City Coffee either biodegradable or compostable.”
Wait, everything? No plastic?
“Yep, we decided when we opened that we weren’t going to have plastic,” explains Romero. “That means our forks and knives are recyclable and even our cups, including the lids.”
Channeling all of that waste into the right disposal streams is quite an effort. Martin City Coffee pays for recyclable trash service, Missouri Organic picks up the compostable waste and Romero delivers glass waste to drop off sites herself.
Extra Shots of Service and Community
Premium coffee and tasty food have created a buzz around Martin City Coffee, but Romero says service is the main attraction. While she deserves credit for setting a good example for employees, she truly believes her team is just naturally inclined to take care of customers.
“I don’t know how I did it, but I picked some really good employees. We’re up to 14 now. They’re just great with customers and so friendly. I think they feel like they’re personally invested in the success of the business and that’s making the business successful. I really do believe the service here is even better than the coffee and food. That says a lot.”
If you think that’s just a proud business owner heaping praise on her staff, go check the reviews. Romero says great service is a consistent theme in feedback.
“We even have customers who are loyal to specific baristas and will only come here when they know their barista is working.”
People just seem to embrace the feeling of Martin City Coffee and Romero’s passion for community connection helps. She hosts local events and recruits artists to add to the atmosphere with features like a ‘coffee’ sign constructed of pipes, handmade coffee mugs and a colorful mural that follows you through the drive-thru. If you can stick around, take a seat at the bar made of wood from a bowling alley, compliments of Phil Meyer.
“I want people to feel something special when they stop in and I’m grateful for the contributions that help create that feeling.”
Constructing a New Era from Scratch
An abandoned mulch business sat on this property until Romero and Ramsey bought it, cleaned it up and prepared it for a new direction. Martin City Coffee is quite an achievement, especially considering it was built from the ground up.
“We actually built it from below ground up,” says Romero with a smile. “We had to put in sewer and water lines, including a pretty tough job burrowing beneath Holmes Road. We also had to create infrastructure to bring in more power. All of the utility work really slowed us down.”
And the construction isn’t over yet. Wait until you see (or taste) what’s coming next door. Romero says Just Burgers could be open by early 2020 if not sooner.
“We’re still doing tastings and narrowing down the menu, but I can tell you the main feature will be really good burgers. It’s a simple concept with burgers at the center. The ingredients will make everything exceptional. You can expect a tasty dessert too.”
Just Burgers will be drive-thru focused with a couple of tables outside and not much room inside. Romero will manage both the coffee and burger businesses herself. That’s a big responsibility, but she’s excited about what it all means for Martin City.
“You know the community just couldn’t wait for us to open. Everyone’s so supportive. It’s just amazing. We have so many regular customers who work at Fishtech and other local businesses. Other customers tell me they come here even though they have options closer to home. It means so much to me to hear that.”
Romero believes she’s joined a business community that’s unrivaled and she’s proud to be part of a restaurant tradition that’s anchored Martin City for so long.
“Martin City restaurants are fantastic. We’re in such great company. I was just in Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse the other day and simply loved their food. The Van Noys are wonderful people. There’s so much momentum right now in the neighborhood with everything going on. And the people – what is it about the people in Martin City? It’s hard to explain but if you spend time around here you know what I’m talking about. They’re just so real and easy to talk to. We all connect. How can you not love this place?”
It’s even easier to love with Martin City Coffee in town. Congratulations to Penny Romero and Rick Ramsey on the first anniversary of your business! We’re looking forward to the burgers!