For roughly three decades J. Roger Powe III had an itch.
After spending almost 20 years in broadcasting and marketing Powe wanted to return to the restaurant business, an arena he once worked in long ago.
But the ideal opportunity never presented itself until he joined the Brewerytown Community Development Corp. four years ago. A woman came to the CDC proposing to build a coffee shop on 31st and Baltz streets but after several years she abandoned the plan due to financial issues.
So in 2008 Powe made a push to purchase the property and build his own cafe. But, the economy had other ideas.
“If you remember anything about the summer of 2008 the financial industry imploded and here I was out trying to seek financing for a commercial mortgage, renovation,” Powe said. “And folks looked at me like I was the green, one-eyed monster when I came in banks looking for money.”
In 2011 he was finally able to gather the finances for the property and thus moving his idea for a cafe to an establishment – iMunch. The name of Powe’s business is a play on words of sorts, combining the idea of consumption in “Munch” and various interpretations of the letter “I.”
“The mission here is about the bridge, bridging of the old with the new to create that kind of culture,” Powe said. “Innovation, an I-word. Ingenuity, an I-word. Intellectualism, an I-word.”
Powe purchased the property for $180,000 and immediately set out putting together a plan to renovate a space that would fit various needs. He envisioned a space for people to eat healthy, organic foods. He also wanted to see a place where people could gather as a community and also provide a meeting area for groups or business people to eat and talk.
“One of the things through working with the CDC we always were talking about, ‘Where can we go have a quick meeting and have food at the same time?’ without being at a restaurant and imposing at the same time,” Powe said.
“We just took a look at the space and my budget and said, ‘How do we design a space that fulfills all these ideas and vision?'” Powe added.
He hired two architects to redesign the property, providing a small kitchen, the cafe area and a lounge and meeting room on the second floor that can be reached via a spiral staircase.
Powe declined to provide specifics but said that he spent a lot of money on the renovation of the property. In all, the cost of the building, licenses and zoning, renovations and equipping the space to serve as a cafe put him well over his original budget, he said. Zoning requirements delayed the process, resulting in the official opening April 6.
The next step for Powe was to find a capable chef to manage iMunch. He turned to Craigslist.
Nicquan Church, who has been in the restaurant business for 15 years in numerous capacities, was looking for a new job that would grant him more time with his two children, especially his younger daughter. He applied for the position along with several other candidates.
“When I met the owner he had a vision and he had a dream that he wanted to materialize and I felt as though I could help him out,” Church said. “Given my experience and given our opportunity, it felt like a perfect fit.”
Powell agreed. “I was thinking in another direction,” he said. “But it seemed to work. He had good chemistry.”
Church worked at Melrose Diner several years ago, eventually becoming their first minority manager and had spent time at several Steven Star restaurants as well as Marathon Grill.
Church’s immediate contribution was to push the menu away from a primarily vegan collection to a balance of vegan, healthy alternatives and more common cafe foods.
He also didn’t want to flood Brewerytown with another cafe like all the others in the area. Church wanted something that stood out. He said he likes the cafe being located across the street from the new Bottom Dollar grocery store because it’s “off the beaten path” and the proximity can provide some cross traffic.
“It seems like no matter what part of the city you go to you see a lot of the same style restaurants jumbled into each other,” Church said. “I noticed that there were areas we could cater to the customer that they weren’t.”
But Church, with all his experience as a chef, didn’t know how to make smoothies or other cafe essentials. So after hiring the rest of the staff Church shared YouTube videos so everyone could learn the same techniques.
“There’s many avenues to learn in this day in age.” Church said.
Since iMunch opened, there have been some menu changes and other tweaks like those associated with any new venture. Church is still figuring out if he wants it to open at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. every day.
Powe said he wants to see how things settle in over the first six to 12 months and he wants to open new branches in the city if iMunch maintains its early success.
“And that’s a process and as we get through that we think we’re moving forward towards a template,” Powe said. “And then we will copy that template.”