Interview: coffee pro Humberto Ricardo (Third Rail Coffee)

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Coffee New York City

New Jersey native and longtime graphic designer Humberto Ricardo opened Third Rail Coffee with Rita McCaffrey in New York’s Greenwich Village in 2009, and their small shop’s become one of the city’s specialty coffee leaders. The name refers to a subway’s third rail that carries electric current. Third Rail’s coffee is invigorating, but far less treacherous. On January 16, Ricardo shared several caffeinated insights, beginning with impending expansion.

Josh Lurie: What does Third Rail Coffee 2.0 look like?

Humberto Ricardo: A lot like this one, maybe a little bigger. I love how small it is, very intimate, but you’ll hear comments about how it’s so tiny and having to take stuff to go can get irritating.

JL: Real estate’s at a premium in New York.

HR: Yeah, New York real estate’s insane.

JL: There are a lot of smaller coffeehouses that do a good job.

HR: We want to stay in small, affordable places so we can be true to our mission. I don’t want to be tempted to grill a panini in order to make the rent. Our focus is 100% on coffee. All the rest of the stuff is peripheral, even the pastries. The pastries come in from other people. They bake them. That’s not my passion. I’m into coffee and want to create a pretty simple, pure experience. So that’s why I want to go into a smaller space, because if I get into something bigger, that’s hard to make money when you just sell coffee.

JL: Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?

HR: I had a whole couple other careers. I worked in bars throughout college and my early years here in New York, which is now 20-something-odd years ago. I kind of veered off into a more stable, 9-5 sort of thing. I got into the graphics industry, so I still had some artistic-ness to it – not corporate or traditional by any means – but I got into digital printing and got really into the technology of that and become a production manager. I worked my way up through the ranks and became a production manager, and that’s what I did for a really long time. I got to 9/11 and they shut down the location that I worked at…I had kind of started a business while I was still in the waning days of that, publishing a line of greeting cards, which was my step into true entrepreneurship. That was inevitable for me. I grew up around entrepreneurs. That’s kind of like my family way. They were all shop owners and stuff. I did that for awhile, but it was home and wasn’t very fulfilling. I never grew up wanting to publish a line of greeting cards. It was a random thing. I fell into it, fell back on it, did it for a few years, gave it a go. It was fun, but after awhile, “I’ve got to do something real and sociable.” I was getting stir crazy, so I started thinking about what I was passionate about. I’ve always been into coffee. It’s a cultural thing for me. I grew up around coffee and had espresso in my bottle. I was really into bartending, really into the social interaction and being really fast and efficient and making things taste good and being professional in that regard. I’ve always been attracted to the culinary realm.

JL: What’s a typical coffee consumption day for you?

HR: You know, it’s not that high…If it’s a workday, it’s a lot, in a sense that you’re constantly tasting. You’re constantly calibrating, if you care what you’re doing. You’re constantly tasting the espresso, and constantly QC’ing things. Even though you don’t swallow it. Nine times out of 10, you’re spitting it out. You’d go bonkers otherwise. You still consume a lot of caffeine. Typically for me, I’m somewhere between two and three cups every day.

JL: What’s the very first cup of coffee that you remember drinking?

HR: I wasn’t joking about the bottle thing, actually. I had café con leche, a very, very weak latte, basically, stovetop espresso, a drop of it literally went into the bottle.

JL: You actually remember that?

HR: Yeah, yeah, I do remember it in glasses, a tall glass of hot milk. And it’s basically stained, and it’s not very strong, but there’s coffee in there. It’s a very Cuban breakfast. Café con leche with some toasted Cuban bread and butter, very nutritious.

JL: Would you say that you’ve had any coffee mentors?

HR: I don’t know that I’ve had mentors. I’ve had people that I’ve admired and learned things from in the past. Andrew Barnett, who used to own Ecco Caffe, was very influential to my professional development. Counter Culture as a whole. I got a job as a barista when I decided to open a coffee shop. I started reaching out and networking, and I actually went down to Counter Culture. That’s why I say they were influential in my development. I went down to Durham in North Carolina and did some training, and then when I came back, I got a job in a coffee shop, because I wasn’t qualified to be a barista. I had some training, but I wasn’t there, because I wanted to do a quality thing. The first person that hired me into coffee was a man named Dan Griffin.

JL: I met him here, because he was working for you.

HR: Oh right…Dan’s definitely an influential coffee person in my life. I’ll stop short of mentor.

JL: Where did he hire you?

HR: We worked at a shop over here, MacDougal and Bleecker Street, it was called Cafe Collage, although nobody knew it was called that because there was no sign. That lasted about a year.

JL: If you could only have one more shot of espresso, who would pull it for you?

HR: Oh my. Whoever’s on duty at Third Rail.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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