If you’re not sure what a “knock box” is, it’s the bin where the grounds of your espresso shot get discarded after it's been served to you with oat milk and a shot of hazelnut. It's also the punny name of the coffee shop at 45th and Osage streets that is a site for not only chai lattes and bagels, but a bonding space for community artists and businesses.
“It’s like having another child,” says Heather DeGrands, the owner of Knockbox, who adopted the cafe two years ago this month. Having to push her opening to June 2020, she explains, “I’ve only known this shop during a pandemic.” But what started as only two people allowed inside has turned into a bustling institution, with students studying on the porch alongside neighbors having their breakfast.
Heather, who lives only two blocks away, takes the classic idea of a coffee shop and fills it with hidden twists and inside jokes that make it less a stop for a simple energy boost and more of a place for the community. Heather describes some of her ideas that were inspired by “old-school soda fountains.” For example, you may not find Italian soda at your go–to coffee place where you're encouraged to mix the flavored syrups (try out lemon lime, or even elderberry!). Knockbox also carries Bassetts Ice Cream and their rotating seasonal flavors. These innovative additions keep people waiting for the next unexpected menu item. A novelty drink Heather recommends is one that came from her childhood in West Virginia called a "Vanilla Wet Dog," with vanilla syrup, espresso, heavy cream, and seltzer, and topped with a slice of orange to squeeze into it.
Beyond the menu, Knockbox is an intimate place for the people of West Philly and a sponsor of small businesses across Philadelphia. “We're small enough for conversations,” Heather puts it. “We care about what you want and what you need and your dogs,” for whom there are treats on the counter. Knockbox supplies the majority of the bread it uses, including “Philly Muffins” from Merxbacher’s Bakery based in Germantown. Its walls feature everything from local art by Claudia Bokulich to the shop’s mascot: Jackie, a stuffed jackalope made in Allentown.
When you arrive at Knockbox, one of their most popular items is “the breakfast sandwich,” served on a Philly muffin with turkey sausage, egg, cheese, and a choice of greens, onion, tomato and pesto. But if you prefer sweets, order a Nutella and banana sandwich, or even turn your favorite ice cream flavor into a float! For coffee, try Knockbox’s original blend of spiced coffee ground with cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg (PS—this is a cheaper option that is just as flavorful as a full–price latte), or their “Whoopass" light roast, known to wake you up immediately.
Last summer, Knockbox participated in one of West Philly’s favorite summer events: Porchfest, a musical festival featuring free performances across the neighborhood, including Glambat and The Latchkey Kids. Some of these bands are set to reappear on Knockbox’s porch at this season’s Porchfest on Saturday, June 4. Whether it be the mural out back designed by local illustrator @emilyrose.illo, bands on the deck, or providing coffee for the University City Arts League, Knockbox is a site for community intersection.
“When you love what you do, it’s not so much work," Heather says. "West Philly people care about each other. They want everyone to feel happy and supported.” As the sun starts to stay out a bit longer, lunch may call for a walk through scenic Victorian neighborhoods starting to blush with cherry blossom trees. On the walk to Knockbox from campus, the streets begin to show more color: a neighborhood cat may pass you, telephone poles are sweatered in yarn bombings, or preschoolers are drawing hopscotch in chalk on the ground—signs of a place that Penn students must realize they are members of, too. Taking a trip to Knockbox gives a taste of this experience not only because of its great pistachio lattes and lox bagels, but because both Knockbox and its menu are homegrown.