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Vibe Coffee Company Fostering People-First Cafe Experience In State College

There’s something tantalizing about walking into a coffee shop.

Even if you’re not a java junkie, something about the low hum of conversation, the smell of freshly ground beans, and the smile of a barista is enough to make you stop and stay for a while.

Sometimes it’s not about the coffee itself. It’s the ambiance. The atmosphere. The environment. The mood. The vibe, if you will, keeps you coming back for more. That’s exactly what Ethan Steiger, Penn State graduate and owner of the aptly named Vibe Coffee Company, is trying to capture in downtown State College.

“I never really considered myself to be a coffee connoisseur,” Steiger said, sipping from a cup of coffee inside his shop on West Beaver Avenue. “Growing up, I just really enjoyed going to coffee shops with my friends… I wasn’t super knowledgeable about anything coffee related.”

Steiger grew up spending a lot of time in coffee shops in and around Philadelphia. In college, he spent more time studying and, in turn, more time in coffee shops. From here, his love for the atmosphere of these shops grew from a passion into a business idea.

While studying at the Smeal College of Business, Steiger began entertaining the idea of opening a shop 10 or 15 years down the line — mainly to create and capture the atmosphere he fell in love with.

That timeline was accelerated when Steiger was approached by his best friend, Tabeel Noel, a Temple business school alum, about opening their own shop soon after graduation. Steiger, who would become the lead barista, was tasked with picking the location. State College was an easy choice.

“There’s a handful of really solid shops here. But with the student population and even the locals, it just feels like there’s a lot more potential to focus on different specialties,” Steiger said. “It might not look like a city and have the same feel of the city, but in terms of the amount of people it’s definitely similar.”

Steiger quickly found a niche by surveying the local coffee scene.

He said they saw chain staples like Starbucks and Dunkin’ offering grab-and-go options while sacrificing quality. On the other hand, local roasteries like Rothrock Coffee, which Steiger had lots of praise for, scratch an itch for the “coffee connoisseurs” of the world.

Vibe aims to strike a balance between these two types of shops and bridge the gap for residents of State College, which goes back to Steiger’s original philosophy of focusing on the shop’s atmosphere rather than the coffee itself.

“We really wanted to hit the in-between section. People that want really good, quality coffee but also want to do fun stuff,” Steiger said. “There’s nothing wrong with ordering a pour-over. We just wanted to appeal to a more broad audience and introduce specialty coffee in a fun, exciting way.”

The key way Vibe has kept things fun is by introducing unique flavors and drinking experiences.

The menu is broken up into two sections. On the left side are your traditional espresso drinks, filter coffee, and cold brew options. On the right are the signature flavors, called “Vibes.” Local-inspired flavors like “Grilled Stickies,” “White Out,” and “Mint Nittany” take center stage.

If you can’t pick from the 14 available Vibes, don’t fret. The shop recently introduced split-cup lattes and latte flights so you can try a few at the same time.

“They’re pretty fun,” Steiger said. “I’ve been to a lot of cideries and distilleries here in State College. So just seeing that [flight] presentation…it’s cool to see people’s reactions because it’s not your basic drip coffee drinking experience.”

These unique ideas and flavors go back to the people-first cafe experience that Vibe is trying to create. It brought out a discount wheel to spin on the one-year anniversary of the shop opening. A 13% discount was offered to anyone who could name the Taylor Swift song playing on the day her newest album was released.

Sometimes to appeal to a broad audience, you have to do something different to stick out. This is especially true when you’re not located in the heart of downtown State College like other shops. Vibe is located on the west side of Atherton Street and, although Penn State’s campus is slowly expanding westward, it’s an uphill battle to bring customers over.

Steiger said that word-of-mouth and social media advertising of their unique offerings has brought people out of their way and over to the coffee shop.

“We had that desire to be different and appeal to a broad audience of people,” Steiger said. “It’s really enjoyable when people order ‘for here’ because it’s nice making a space for them to do their work…people feel pretty welcome here.”

He said the people aspect of Vibe has been his favorite part so far. He’s connected with regular customers as well as local businesses like The Cakeshop by Tati and Irving’s, which provide pastries and bagels for the cafe.

Although its coffee beans are roasted by Ohio’s Brioso Coffee, Vibe wants to stay in touch with the local community. The Penn State-inspired flavors are part of it, but Steiger wants to expand with catering and hospitality options for other local businesses.

“We’ve made some connections outside of the shop,” Steiger said. “Whether it’s groups at Penn State or local small businesses that really like our coffee… We’re constantly thinking and trying to expand to offering lattes, coffee, and cold brew at events.”

If you want to check out Vibe for yourself, you can head over to 401 W. Beaver Ave. and find the shop tucked away underneath The Graduate apartment complex. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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