Jessica Durie founded Small World Coffee 17 years ago with partner Brant Cosaboom. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
Customers order hot drinks on a cold December day at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
Phyllis Suber sits with her friend Vesna Petrin in Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street Dec. 20, 2010. Both are Princeton residents. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

It may be hard to remember that 17 years ago last month, the thirsty people of Princeton didn’t have many options if they wanted a good cup of coffee and a cozy place to sit and drink it.

But today, Princetonians who are of college age or younger have never known a world without Small World Coffee.

“We’ve essentially been here for an entire generation of kids growing up,” said Jessica Durie, who founded Small World with partner Brant Cosaboom and still owns and operates it today. “There’s so much history and connection with so many of our customers now.”

When Durie and Cosaboom opened their doors on Witherspoon Street in December 1993, Starbucks franchises still numbered in the low hundreds, and none were in the immediate area. Even though a coffee shop was as good an idea then as it is now, it was hardly a sure thing.

In 2011, Small World employs around 40 employees, including about 20 full timers, at two cafés (the second, on Nassau Street, opened in July 2006) and a Rocky Hill roastery. It has become a Princeton institution.

“[Small World is] part of the establishment now I think, which is a funny feeling,” Durie said. “Especially for someone who was never trying to be part of the establishment.”

Durie, a Cornell graduate who studied hotel and restaurant administration, had developed a taste for cafés growing up in cities around the globe, including Rome, Melbourne and São Paulo. The adventure began in Mill Valley, Calif., where her father, working for General Motors, accepted a job overseas. Durie, who has three siblings, was three.

“He’s such an adventurer,” she said. “Every time they offered him another international post, he was into it. It was an incredible way to grow up.”

After Cornell, Durie went to graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she began learning the ins and outs of coffee shops working for a company called Espresso Royale. She met Cosaboom there, a fellow employee and himself a world traveler who had lived in Spain and Korea. They moved to Princeton and opened Small World when she was 27 and he was 25.

Though Starbucks eventually moved into its familiar spot on Nassau Street, Small World has thrived. Durie admits she was nervous when the challenge from the global giant first came, but said Small World is just one of many examples of a local café holding its own when faced with tough competition.

“Since Starbucks has had its wave of success, there’s also been a strong wave of success of small independent coffee companies that have risen,” Durie said. “For people that are really into coffee, basically there’s Starbucks and there’s independents. They’re kind of mutually exclusive [customer bases].”

Any coffeehouse that’s lasted 17 years is dependent upon the quality of its drinks—in Small World’s case, that includes house-roasted coffee—and tasty treats. Small World customers nosh on muffins and cookies or breakfast sandwiches like the Pile Driver (fried egg, bacon, aged cheddar and garlic butter on an English muffin) or El Gringo, a breakfast burrito.

Durie sees other keys to longevity too. She cites the connection to the local art and music scene as one major influence in her success. Small World now does 24 art exhibits a year—one in each shop—and hosts musicians regularly. (Prominent local jazz musician Tom Tallitsch is scheduled to perform at the Witherspoon location Jan. 15 at 8:30 p.m.; see the complete art and music calendar online at smallworldcoffee.com.)

“Obviously the coffee is the driving force of what makes it a viable business,” she said. “But the art and the music, when you tap into those styles of expression, you’re tapping into so many more people. Then when you have the art shows on the walls, and musical evenings, you’re inviting in people who wouldn’t necessarily come all the time, and you’re making it a place where they feel their expression is being heard.”

Durie also credits some of the company’s success to the loyalty of the staff. Tuc Sargentini, whose job title is trainer, has been with Small World since 1994.

Sargentini imparts the culture, policies and procedures to each generation of Worldlings, including most importantly, showing them the Small World way to make drinks.

“We aren’t robots, we don’t have buttons we can push. Each drink is created. People have to learn how to do that,” Sargentini said.

“They know the culture of the company, they’re able to pass that on to newer employees, keep telling the story in the way we want it to be told,” Durie said. “They know the moral code of the company. A lot of times, they’re able to make decisions on the fly without asking me because they know what I’d say.”

General manager Vin Jule, like Sargentini a Princeton resident, will soon celebrate 10 years with the company. Before he started with Small World, he worked at another coffee shop where he said they didn’t pay much attention to detail, or success.

“Here, you feel like you’re working with family,” Jule said. “I feel like I’m taken care of. Now that I’m a manager, it’s my job to take care of everyone else. The people here care about the coffee, they care about the service they give and they care about the experience people have coming through.”

Small World Coffee is located at 14 Witherspoon St.(609-924-4377, Ext. 2), and 254 Nassau St. (Ext. 3) in Princeton. Both locations are open seven days a week.