New Rocket Cat Cafe owners Debbie Anday and Jean-Paul Viera in front of their shop

When word spread that Karen Breese had sold Rocket Cat Cafe, the vegan-friendly coffee shop she opened on Frankford Avenue back in 2003, neighbors and regular customers feared the worst — that the quirky caffeine haunt had succumbed to the area’s gentrification boom and would be shutting down.

Good news, Fishtown: The rumor mill was wrong.

Rocket Cat Cafe is not closing. Quite the opposite, actually, although it will likely take a break for a few weeks during January for some much-needed interior renovations. The reinvigoration is part of the longterm business plan hatched by the cafe’s new proprietors, who are as into great coffee as they are dedicated to keeping the spot’s independent spirit alive.

“The thing about Rocket Cat that we love is it’s a neighborhood place,” says Debbie Anday, who now owns the cafe along with husband Jean-Paul Viera. “We want to keep it that way.”

Anday’s background is as a hospitality consultant — she had a hand in opening and running dozens of bars and restaurants in New York City, New Jersey and Las Vegas. Viera is in real estate, but he also has a fledgling coffee importing business, which he started after visiting his mother in Haiti and realizing that the island nation’s second-largest commodity was undervalued and under-promoted.

Scenes from Viera's coffee trips to Haiti
Scenes from Viera’s coffee trips to Haiti Credit: Courtesy of Jean-Paul Viera

During summer 2014, Anday and Viera ran a pop-up called Cafe Kreole in Williamsburg, where they lived at the time. Its success led them to look into a brick-and-mortar location — and also smack into the wall of the dispiriting economics of trying to launch and maintain a small business in Brooklyn. Guess where they ended up instead?

“I used to live in Philly for around 10 years [in the 2000s],” Anday explains, noting that she was part of the team that opened Apothecary on 13th and Drury (where Tiki is now). “I’ve always loved Philadelphia and called it home. My sister and her kids live here as well.”

Along with their young daughter, the husband and wife (32 and 36 years old, respectively) moved down last year, keeping their cafe dreams on the back burner while they established a foothold by opening Fishtown Real Estate, LLC. Then the cafe opportunity fell in their lap.

“Karen [Breese] is a family friend of ours,” says Anday. “She came to us and said, ‘I might be willing to sell.’”

By October, the deal was done, and Rocket Cat — most recently in the news when Breese apologized for being duped into letting a guy with his junk hanging out walk around the shop to promote the Philly Naked Bike ride — found itself under new management.

The cafe is easily recognizable
The cafe is easily recognizable Credit: Courtesy of Jean-Paul Viera

Few people noticed the switch, since most of the changes so far have been subtle, and most of the staff has stayed on. But some enhancements have already been put into effect, and several others are in the works.

First up: the coffee itself. Viera sends his Haiti-sourced beans to Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co. for roasting, and the coffee he gets back is now the main drink served at Rocket Cat. Other single origin beans from Vermont Artisan are also on offer, and Viera is working on creating a custom house blend, a portion of the proceeds from which will be donated to the nonprofit Friends of Haiti in New York.

Next, the food. “We want to elevate the menu, but keep all the vegan and gluten-free offerings, too,” Anday says — expect a much bigger menu at brunch in the near future, for example. She has also partnered with Riverwards Produce and Philly Bread Co., part of an effort “to stay local and stay fresh.” The menu upgrades will be greatly helped along by the planned interior renovation, which may include adding a full kitchen.

The physical revamp will also improve access to the back yard: “It’s beautiful, but people don’t know it’s there — you almost have to go behind the counter to get to it.”

In general, Anday will concentrate on the day-to-day at the restaurant, while Viera handles the coffee sourcing and runs the real estate business. But they want customers to know they both intend to be very hands on.

“We just want people to know that we love this community,” Anday says. “One of us is at the cafe every day.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...