Since my last visit to Manhattan in May 2009, the New York City coffee scene has exploded even more. Stumptown set up shop in Red Hook and opened a Manhattan coffeehouse at the Ace. Café Grumpy continues to employ a multi-roaster attack, but is also roasting its own beans in Greenpoint. Premium farm-to-cup coffee roasters like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture don’t have coffeehouses – yet – but they’ve gained traction in the wholesale market. On a smaller scale, new coffeehouses like Third Rail have taken hold. It’s amazing how much can happen to one city in only nine months. Since I’m only in New York once a year, I turned to a trio of influential New York-based coffee pros: Café Grumpy founder Caroline Bell, former Gimme! Coffee pro Mike White and Intelligentsia East Coast Sales & Marketing man David Latourell.
Mike White relocated from Ithaca in 2003 to open branches of Gimme! in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “When I came here there was really only one place to get good coffee in New York,” says White. “Overall consumer awareness and demand has increased, and high quality, consistent cafes have been very successful.” He credits Gimme! with helping to foster “a culture of education, passion, and total commitment.”
“People used to just get coffee at the bodega for $1,” says Intelligentsia’s Latourell. “New Yorkers love coffee, but are very much creatures of habit. Also price consciousness and speediness matters to them. It took time for people to realize that it’s worth the wait, but finally things have changed. Joe, Ninth Street Espresso and Café Grumpy, not to mention intelligentsia have all played a roll in enabling that change to take place.”
White is convinced that New York is already a great coffee city, but has noticed some limitations. “For all the new shops that have opened there has been very little diversity,” says White. “In terms of both technique and suppliers.” Café Grumpy founder Caroline Bell seems to concur. When she opened Grumpy in 2005, in “Greenpoint alone, there were tumbleweeds, now there are coffeehouses every block.” She has “definitely noticed a lot more “specialty” coffee shops, almost to the point where it’s almost a formula now.”
The coffeehouses that aren’t following a formula are gaining the most attention, including Café Grumpy and Ninth Street Espresso. “New Yorkers appreciate high quality, even if they have to pay a little more for it,” says Bell. “It might have grown a little fast, but now people’s expectations might be a little higher, which is good.”
White considers Third Rail Coffee near Washington Square Park one of the rising stars. “It was designed carefully by experienced baristas, has a staff that understands the craft beyond simply selling product, purchases high quality beans, and offers slow-brewed coffee by the cup,” says White. “Third Rail loves coffee, and it’s obvious every day.” In the future, White would consider opening a café of his own in Brooklyn, applying the lessons that he’s learned.
White discussed what it takes to achieve success in the New York City coffee world, saying, “You need to serve a high number of people everyday to break even, which means there’s often a balance struck between volume and quality. If costs were lower more focus would be spent on quality and progressive brewing techniques. To some extent this has already happened. When the real estate bubble burst the market was suddenly flooded with empty retail stores ready to bring down their rents. Most of the new shops in NYC have all opened in the last year or so.”
The cost of entry may have gone down, and the number of shops may have multiplied, but Manhattan coffeehouses still face a number of unique challenges. For example: space, which comes at a premium. “Most of the great shops here are very small,” says White. “It’s very hard to cover your expenses selling coffee alone. You have to be dedicated to the craft, and creative with your use of space.” Still, he’s hopeful, pointing out that “In NYC there are 8 million potential customers located within 22 square miles.” Given that, “No matter how close two shops are geographically, both have an equal opportunity to find their niche and be successful.”
“People need to feel good about spending money and time on a good product,” says Latourell, “Because if that happens then the farmers benefit from it. There needs to be more support in the info structure and origin of the product.” Professional coffee ambassadors are helping to spread the message. So are mainstream media outlets like The New York Times Coffee page.
One factor driving New Yorkers’ interest is a recommitment to roasting in the city. Coffee roasting originated near the Seaport in the 18th Century, and now companies like Café Grumpy and Stumptown have opened roasting facilities in Brooklyn. “It’s better for people who work for us,” says Bell. “You get to learn more, gets to see more about coffee growing. We have more control over the beans. It’s also better for the coffee. You can talk more about the coffee because the roaster’s right in the café.” Bell says, “Every company has a different roast profile, and it keeps it more interesting.” Liam Singer is roasting Grumpy’s green coffee in Greenpoint. However, Bell decided to retain her guest coffee program, saying, “It’s interesting to have a variety, and it’s fun to work with small roasters.”
I asked the coffee pros how the New York City coffee scene stacks up against cities like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. White would slide NYC between Seattle and San Francisco. “Based on size alone I think NYC has more decent cafes per square mile than any other city,” he says.
Bell responded by backing New York’s previous coffee efforts, saying, “It seems like everyone from the other cities are coming here and trying to start what they were doing in other cities. Coffee drinking was already part of New York’s fabric and make-up. Whether it was cool or not is another question.”