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Community coffee buzz to continue

River Wards Cafe to transition to ReAnimator Coffee location this spring, with intention to keep current vibe alive.

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Coffee connection (from left): Matt Gragg, Joe Livewell and Chris B. have been serving the Port Richmond community at River Wards Cafe since March 2016. PHOTO: RIVER WARDS CAFE

This month marks five years since River Wards Cafe opened its doors in Port Richmond, and now, the next chapter in coffee and community will be a transition.

River Wards Cafe will become a ReAnimator Coffee spot in the beginning of May. 

Joe Livewell, proprietor at River Wards, posted the announcement on the cafe’s Instagram on March 22.

But, a social media post can only convey so much information, emotion and story.

Livewell was working for the Riverwards Group, a real estate developer, when talks turned in early summer 2014 to converting the property it owned at 3118 Richmond St., into a coffee shop.

“I really lit up at that idea because I had worked at ReAnimator Coffee a few years prior,” Livewell said. “I knew their operations. I really liked what they did. I loved their product. And, if this space was going to be vacant, I would love to put this coffee shop here and, I’m your guy.”

3118 Richmond St., which had been dilapidated for more than 20 years, would become River Wards Cafe a couple of years later, officially opening on March 11, 2016.

Livewell was helping manage other ongoing projects on Richmond Street leading up to the opening of River Wards, all with the goal of creating a rebirth of the once-busy corridor.

“All during that time, I knew that space would be a coffee shop. I did everything very intentionally, not only as an employee [of Riverwards Group], but as the future owner of the cafe,” Livewell said. “I got to know people on the street, I got to know other business owners. I remember having a table at Second Saturdays in 2015. I wanted to engage with the community from the day I got on to Richmond Street.”

And, so the hashtag, #RichmondStreetrevival, was born.

“I started using it on social media in late 2014, early 2015. I was telling developers we should create this identity about the block,” Livewell said. “I created a lot of buzz around the opening using the Richmond Street revival hashtag, and really creating a buzz prior to opening for things to come.”

River Wards certainly brought a breath of fresh air and more to Richmond Street and the community.

Going beyond just memorizing the regular orders of customers, River Wards gave the community a space to come to for important life events while sharing pieces of Livewell’s own personal life.

From being a polling place, to serving as a backdrop for engagement and wedding photoshoots, to people signing a lease for their first apartment, to business owners meeting for the first time to discuss their future in the neighborhood, River Wards Cafe has been an open space for all walks of life.

“We hosted the presidential election in 2016, had a few art openings, we would do workshops after-hours such as wellness, financial and small business clinics,” Livewell said. “I really wanted to bring my own memories and childhood and exciting things into the space. It really is just an extension of myself, that business.”

Frog Hollow Donuts down the shore was one of those main memories Livewell shared with customers on select Saturday mornings.

“I did the three-hour round trip drive, and I pumped it on social media,” Livewell said. “And, people just got it. It was a fun day.”

Another memory was a Philly classic: soft pretzels.

“Growing up, I loved a chocolate milk and a soft pretzel. So, I reached out to my favorite soft pretzel company, Center City Soft Pretzel,” Livewell said. “And, probably for three years, we sold soft pretzels on a daily basis. And, people would come in and share they remember having them as a kid.”

And, the cafe continued to operate during the Richmond Street roadwork.

“We were still able to keep our regulars during that time, and I always knew the light was at the end of the tunnel,” Livewell said. “Fortunately, it got down after about two years, and people were able to drive down Richmond Street again.”

River Wards celebrated turning four in March 2020, only to shut down a few days later because of the pandemic.

But still, Livewell and his staff pushed ahead to serve the community that had come to embrace them.

“My resolve was tested, but I still felt we were the place that survived everything once we got back open on June 1,” Livewell said. “Once we got back open, it was like we never left. Obviously, things changed, and it was less people, but that’s everywhere. The way we reopened was fantastic. We did the best we could during it and I was really proud of that.”

And, while the cafe is finally hitting its stride again since weathering the pandemic, Livewell has more on his plate personally nowadays and decided it was time to pass on the torch.

His decision to tap ReAnimator Coffee Roasters to take over was intentional.

ReAnimator Coffee has been served at River Wards Cafe since it opened.

Livewell and ReAnimator have a long history, going back to when they met before ReAnimator co-founder Mark Capriotti moved to Fishtown in 2006.

Livewell grew up around the corner from its flagship location in Fishtown and joined ReAnimator both in the roastery and cafe when it was opening its first location.

“I was in between jobs and was looking to be creative and see what small business was like,” Livewell said. “I would stamp and help manage their roasting facility. I had a Sunday barista shift. I got to know coffee origins pretty well. I learned a lot about what I was tasting and what it meant. And, that’s really when my passion for coffee began. That is the root that really made me interested in doing something on my own.”

The plan is to reopen the spot as ReAnimator Coffee in the beginning of May, according to Capriotti.

And, while customers can expect to see some changes to indicate the transition in branding, the goal is to capture and keep the essence of what made River Wards Cafe a neighborhood staple.

“Our plan is that customers feel the same vibe that Joe created,” Capriotti said. “It’s going to look and feel the same. We are adding some elements to make it feel like a ReAnimator, but it’s going to feel the same, for sure.”

Serving residents more than a quality cup of coffee isn’t something Capriotti and ReAnimator take lightly.

“We see it much more as a continuation, rather than a conversion,” Capriotti said. “Our biggest challenge will be living up to current customers’ expectations that have been set by Joe and his team.”

For Livewell, it’s all he can ask for and more.

“ReAnimator was always the main coffee we served. They were such a part of my beginnings, to have a fun and collaborative transition where they are going to take over the space, it’s almost poetic that it now becomes theirs and they get to take it to its next level,” Livewell said. “There’s no other company I’d rather trust with what I’ve built. I’m grateful that we’re able to close out our chapter and begin theirs.”

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