Cuban Java Entrepeneur Says “No” to Coffee Chains

St. Elmo's Coffee Pub founder brings community together

Her immigrant success story began with hard-scrabble beginnings on a farm in her native Cuba, where each morning as a youngster she rose at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and fetch the eggs.

Nora Partlow's tireless work ethic, combined with a healthy dollop of sunny disposition and infectious optimism, translated into the success of an Alexandria business which George Mason University urban planners say has been a central catalyst of the Del Ray community's controlled and gentrified growth over the last decade.

The founder of St. Elmo's Coffee Pub on Del Ray's "main street" celebrated her 60th birthday Sunday night, in a surprise "Sexy at 60" birthday gathering thrown by friends and admirers who say that Partlow offers up more than just poppyseed muffins and warm jo each morning as they head to their desks in the most important city in the world.

"I'm a firm believer in propping up and supporting Del Ray businesses like Nora's," said Jonathan Roberts of Del Ray, who manages an overseas radio network based in the District. "Especially during tough economic times like right now. These businesses are the lynch pin of the American economy."

Twenty-five years ago Roberts was also a customer of Partlow's at "The Snuggery," a small cafe next door where she was once the bartender. The location now houses the popular Evening Star Restaurant, and Partlow will soon be joined on the block by three new themed restaurants in the planning stages by restaurateur Mike Anderson of Mango's Mike fame.

For his part, Roberts said he comes in "every day" at the crack of dawn to St. Elmo's for coffee -- iced or hot -- and maybe a ham and cheese croissant for the ride downtown.

Keeping customers like Roberts loyal is key to survival in a world full of Starbucks on every corner (but not yet in Del Ray, given Partlow's dominance here). With the severe economy, Partlow said that her business is down 25 percent. Recently Partlow became a Realtor with Coldwell Banker's Old Town office, and is juggling two careers until the economy improves.

"My customers are still coming in, but just buying less, as in a small coffee instead of a large," she said. "The economy has affected just about everything...even the sale of coffee."

More than just a coffee pub, St. Elmo’s has become a proving ground for local artists, musicians, politicians and various neighborhood groups who can be found around its large communal meeting tables. AOL City Guide recently named it one of its 10 top coffee joints in the metro area, out of about 4,000.

An early customer was Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who often drops in on Saturday mornings to get the pulse of his constituents. "I just love Nora and what she's built for Del Ray," Moran said. "There are few places like it."

Read more about Nora Partlow at  Contact the writer at

Contact Us