When Caroline Bell opened Café Grumpy with Chris Timbrell in 2005, they started big, with a Greenpoint café that accommodated art and performance space. They’ve diversified since then, adding cafes in Park Slope and moving across the river to Chelsea and the Lower East Side. They’ve also added coffee roasting, green buying and baking to their repertoire. We met Bell at the tiny Lower East Side café on May 8, and she helped explain why Café Grumpy has proven successful in New York’s increasingly competitive specialty coffee market.
Was it a given that you would work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?
No, I don’t think it was a given. In college, I studied photography and French literature. I worked in a variety of places, like restaurants, galleries, offices. I’ve been drinking coffee for a long time and was always interested in setting up a business. They went together that way.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Germany and moved around a lot when I was younger. I went to high school in New Jersey, so I just say New Jersey.
Considering what you learned doing the first three coffeehouses, how do you apply those lessons to the business going forward? What’s a Café Grumpy coffeehouse now, versus when you first started?
I guess when we first started, it was kind of learn as you go along. We did make some mistakes. We rented a large space. It ended up working out in the end because that’s where our roastery ended up being, but at first we had an art gallery back there and we had music events to try to get the neighborhood involved in the store. As we went along, as you just noticed, the stores tend to get smaller and smaller. We expanded some things, simplified. You just learn where to order supplies, who to work with. Everything just gets easier.
Would you say that you’ve had any mentors over the years, or was it more trial and error?
Unfortunately, it was just a few books that helped, and just learning and making mistakes, but there was no one who stepped up and gave advice or helped. I was trying to think of a good mentor, but sadly couldn’t think of one to tell you.
I guess when you first opened, there were probably fewer people focusing on specialty coffee in New York.
Yeah, it was quite small. I remember looking at the Williamsburg area and Gimme! opened and was really excited. They were one of the first places doing a great job and gave me hope. In this city, I really didn’t think there was much going on. It’s really changed, I guess. I feel like, that being said, as we went along, we were more about a creating a sustainable business. It’s about coffee, but it’s also about creating jobs, and creating a business that supports itself so people can grow within the business. Our roasters are two people that used to be baristas. Our baker was also a barista, so it’s just giving people an opportunity to grow as far as possible. We started small, just me and Chris working everyday, to having a crew now that’s creative, and is just a great place to work and a good business in New York City.
Why was it important to start roasting your own coffee?
Well I think it opens up a lot of room for learning and experience and control. I’ve been interested in it since the beginning and it took awhile for us to get set up, finding the equipment and getting the permits and finding where to put everything. It just seems like a natural progression, I guess. We worked with some great roasters, but in the end, you’re still waiting for boxes to be delivered from wherever. You’re relying on the mail. You’re relying on other people’s tastes and choices. It’s good. Also, one of our baristas became our green buyer, so that gave us another opportunity for growth in coffee. Our staff naturally becomes more excited about it because their friend’s roasting. It creates more opportunity, it’s more interesting and retail demand gets better, because we know most of the story of what happened to the coffee.
What’s the biggest challenge in operating a roastery and series of cafes?
Financially, it’s challenging, with different financial pressures and stress. We’re independent. We don’t have any investors or anything, so it’s kind of like every glass that breaks – you know, maybe things that people wouldn’t care about, to me, it’s like, “Oh my god.” It’s stressful that way because you’ve basically put everything in your life into these stores. Also, it takes a lot of energy to keep quality, and keep going, and just to stay positive. Also, we have like 30 people working here now, so that’s another challenge, just human resources, everybody’s different personalities and wanting to be involved in the stores and how they work. That’s one thing. We don’t have managers for the stores. We want the staff to take responsibility and ownership, so that’s another challenge, to have people work well together.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind one of your bars?
We’re looking ideally for people who are a little more well rounded. I find that, although I think it’s good to be super focused on coffee, I find that people who have other interests, like music or art, or anything, they tend to see things a little bigger picture. When you’re creating a place, you want something to come back to, which is the only way to sustain your business and everything that goes into that experience. I feel like those people have – like they may offer you a snack or pick things up – and have a more holistic view. So different interests, and just hard working. Sometimes I took for restaurant experience. If they’ve worked in a kitchen, I feel like they know how to hustle. Because it is a physically active job. This store’s a little bit different, but in Chelsea, you have to run around a lot doing dishes. You have to clean up, because we don’t have bussers.
How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?