The Mother of All Iced Coffee

Enjoy an iced coffee on a hot day? You can thank PJ’s Coffee’s founder.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

 

Cold coffee? At one time, coffee served less than piping hot was considered a travesty. But as temperatures climb in New Orleans, it’s hard to believe that for most of our 300-year history, a hot cup of chicory coffee was the standard here.

Phyllis Jordan, founder of PJ’s Coffee, changed all that when she began a coffee revolution on Maple Street in Uptown New Orleans on September 5, 1978. From the very start, Jordan eschewed the term “coffeehouse.” At the time, that evoked images of dark, smoky places frequented by “beatniks.”

Jordan imagined a sunny place that would serve as a neighborhood hub, welcoming moms and children, students and professors, encouraging them to linger over coffee and conversation.

Shortly after PJ’s became the gathering place Jordan designed it to be, one of her coffee suppliers, Mike Buckley, introduced her to the Toddy Coffee Maker. Invented in 1964 by chemist Todd Simpson, the cold-brew system was originally intended to create a concentrate that would be mixed with hot water as a low-acidity alternative to hot brewed coffee.  

Jordan, who originally hails from St. Louis, Missouri, remembered her mother enjoying leftover coffee on ice in a nod to her German heritage – an abomination, as far as Jordan was concerned. But once Buckley urged her to taste cold-brew iced coffee served with a bit of vanilla extract in it, she was off to the races.

New Orleanians embraced PJ’s iced coffee, although much of the nation didn’t share our enthusiasm. At annual meetings of the National Coffee Association in the mid-1980s, the future of coffee looked dim.  “Young people will never drink coffee,” the old-timers proclaimed. “They want a cold drink!” Again and again, Jordan stood up and said, “Yes, I’m doing cold coffee in New Orleans and it’s doing quite well.” But no one paid any attention for a long, long time.

They’re paying attention now. Geoffrey Meeker, owner of French Truck Coffee, says that in his business today, “Iced coffee is as big as hot coffee or bigger.” He estimates that 50 percent of his wintertime sales are for iced coffee. That number climbs to 75 percent when it’s hot outside.

This relative newcomer to the coffee scene credits part of the French Truck success to the pebbly ice used in the company’s iced coffee. “Once you finish your drink, there’s almost a little coffee snowball left behind to enjoy for dessert,” Meeker says.

Tom Oliver’s Coffee Science on South Broad Street is one of New Orleans’ newest coffeehouses. A player in the New Orleans coffee business for over 30 years, Oliver is a former co-owner of Orleans Coffee and was the manager at Kaldi’s Coffeehouse in the French Quarter back in the 1990s.

At Coffee Science, Oliver has recreated the 1990s iced coffee phenomena, Venetian Crème, a highly caffeinated cold drink of almost mythical status.

According to Oliver, the drink was created by a mysterious Metairie resident known as “Mr. Anthony” who mixed together imported Mexican coffee concentrate with sugar and non-dairy creamer. Oliver now crafts Venetian Crème from espresso combined with coconut milk and fresh cream instead of non-dairy creamer, but it still packs quite a punch!

Today the future of iced coffee seems limitless, with trade magazines often pointing to Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s as industry leaders in popularizing the trend. Jordan laughs when she remembers the first time she saw iced coffee advertised at a McDonald’s in Boston in the 1990s. The sign proudly proclaimed their iced coffee was impossibly “cold roasted,” a misnomer she didn’t even bother to address.

So this summer, when you cool down and perk up with a delicious iced coffee, raise a glass to the mother of all iced coffees, New Orleans’ own Phyllis Jordan.

 

 

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.

 

 

 

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