Penny's Coffee is among the most stylish cafes in Minneapolis.
Look at the towering floor-to-ceiling windows, the so-on-trend cacti, those dangling orbs, the dramatic marble backdrop. "Every detail had to be perfect," we said while awarding Penny's Best Coffee Shop honors last year.
So, naturally, CEO Ben Hertz is inspired by... Taco Bell.
Admittedly, not in an aesthetic sense. But in making sure Penny's stays as popular today as it was on day one?
"I'm not ashamed to tell you that we adopted Taco Bell's philosophy of real-time ideation," Hertz tells us. "We'll roll out a program and put it right in front of our customers."
It's helped turned Penny's—both the Washington Avenue flagship and its Linden Hills sibling—into two of Minneapolis' most popular coffee shops. And they're about to get a whooole lot of company.
"We'd like to roll out a handful of new cafes in the near-term," Hertz says. That means maybe two by next summer, a few over the coming years—and eventually? "I don't know! It's more than one and less than 100."
(Speaking to the Strib last month, he put the figure at around 50.)
Penny's menu doesn't necessarily change monthly or even seasonally, but it does continually evolve. Things come and go. Remember the sandwiches you could briefly get? They seemed like a good fit, but they slowed down kitchen and smelled up the cafes, so they were yoinked from the menu real fast. Regulars are hyper-vocal on social media, via email—hell, they'll text the CEO to tell him what they like and don't.
According to Hertz, the expansion plan stems from a desire to help Penny's employees grow as much as the business does. "We want to create lots of opportunities for our team," he adds (perhaps unsurprising for an entrepreneur who's insisted on a $15 minimum wage since the shops opened). He comes from a real estate and finance background, and has some start-up experience.
"There's not one person who works on my team who didn't start out as a team member in the trenches," Hertz says. "Now, we've got this back office that continues to grow, and they're people that came as line cooks or baristas ... Do we want to be ultra hierarchical? No! But do we want people to become leaders from within? Yeah, absolutely—that's the Penny's way."
As for what else to expect from Penny's forthcoming takeover, Hertz doesn't have a lot of info just yet. He knows he won't want all Penny's—even if there are 200 of them!—to be the same. His team will work with multiple design firms, and while there will be a focus on connecting with community at each through things like Motor Place at Linden Hills, they won't have much else in common.
Except, of course, to be a comfortable space for five-minute espresso-slamming breaks and hour-long meetings and all-day laptop jockeying alike. And to be places where the food is thoughtfully, sustainably, and locally sourced, from places like Lowry Hill Meats or area pork farms.
Because Hertz's other great inspiration—an innovator, to be sure, though in an entirely different sense—is none other than Lucia's, the recently shuttered Uptown staple that's about to become a Mexican joint.
"Which was one of my favorite restaurants in the Twin Cities, ever," Hertz says. "I was fortunate enough to kind of grow up in and around Lucia's, and Lucia Watson's a dear friend of my parents. She really led by example, that it really is possible to get your eggs from an egg farmer and your milk from a dairy farm, your greens from one farm and your tomatoes from another."