Cafe Grumpy first opened the doors of its Greenpoint location in late 2005. A year later, they opened a store in the heart of Chelsea with an eye-catching Clover machine that gained them much more visibility and buzz for having some of the best coffee around. Grumpy began making a name for themselves as one of a handful of places around town (along with Ninth Street Espresso and Gimme! Coffee) that were bringing New York a serious coffee culture, the kind that the west coast has gained a reputation for over the years. Now the rep they've built themselves—recently having won Best Coffee in NYC in the Time Out New York Eat Out Readers Poll—is sure to grow even further with the newest store they've just opened on 7th Avenue in Park Slope.
Cafe Grumpy's owner, Caroline Bell, sat down to talk to us about why she hopes the "specialty coffee" tag is only temporary, how she tried to out a Yelp user who badmouthed her from inside the store and also just reminded us of the fact that running a small business trumps being around coffee all day when it comes to how tired you are.
How has the new Park Slope location been going so far? It's great. I'm happy because I can walk to work.
Have you noticed a distinction in the Park Slope customers just in your first week versus Greenpoint or Chelsea? Yeah, definitely. Every store has its own special things. I guess here there's the cliche: more mothers with strollers.
Uh oh, you guys aren't gonna have to enact a stroller policy, are you? No, there's not many chairs so you can come in and order in. You can do a circle, so it's fine. There's a lot more decaf drinkers and skim orders. I guess that goes hand-in-hand. But mostly people have been pretty receptive and happy to see us here.
I noticed you guys have an old-timey land line phone on the wall here at the Park Slope store. What's up with that? We have cordless phones at both the other stores and they just never work right. It's also hard to answer the phone, so this just kind of takes you back to basics. The phone rings, you pick it up, and that's it. No, like, running around.
What exactly is "specialty coffee? It's kind of funny, but it's just trying to describe the coffee experience or way of making coffee that's maybe more crafts-oriented and a little more artisanal. Hopefully that word will be taken off and it will just be "coffee" and it will all be good. But I think that's what it's trying to separate—just coffee from somewhere where people are taking a little more time and care, and maybe the coffee's fresher. Things like that. I think that's what it's supposed to mean.
What has been the effect of Stumptown coming to New York? It seems like ninety percent of the press on local coffee over the year has involved them. I guess we never had any PR people or put any press releases out. They always call me for quotes in those articles and then I don't have much to say on it, so they don't use them. [Laughs] I think we've been lucky. I agree it's been one-track coffee reporting lately. But it doesn't really affect us. I'm sure [Stumptown's] pretty successful—over 50 wholesale accounts already, so that's good. We're fine. We use all different roasters, so it's not really a big deal for us.
So without any PR plan, how did you guys distinguish yourselves as such a unique place? For us, word-of-mouth seems to work. It was a slow start when we first opened. And also just doing events like donating to fundraisers or local whatever works. Things like that seem to work more when you get involved in the community and you meet people that way and they tell their friends.
What attracted you to having a coffee shop? When I was younger, me and my friends would go to diners in Ramsey [New Jersey] and sit there and drink coffee for hours. It's just the aspect of going somewhere and getting something good to drink and hanging out with people that you like and talking. That's what attracts me. You know how social I am.
More than you'll admit! If you had a day off and needed a breather from Grumpy, what coffee shop would you go to? I wouldn't. I would be sleeping. I don't really have time to go other stores. If I was around here in Park Slope, I'd visit the guys at Southside. But I don't get out that much. I don't think I'd go somewhere else and get coffee. Maybe I'd go to the park.
When you guys were thinking about starting a business, was there any thought of opening a restaurant? Not really. I worked in restaurants, so I didn't really want to be too into food. When we first opened, we had bagels and sandwiches and stuff, but it was taking away from the coffee. People would order a cappuccino and then they'd have to wait for me to toast someone's bagel lightly on one side or something like that. It was more about the place people could come and get something good and enjoy themselves.
Were people really taken aback when you took away the bagels? Some people, yeah, but not so much. It was a big revolt when people first saw no bagels. We probably lost half the people that were in Greenpoint then, but it picked up eventually.
What about the "specialty coffee" rules that people sometimes gripe about—no iced espresso, sixteen ounce Americanos, etc.? I don't think we have too many rules. We try to keep the menu simple, but we try to explain the reason so in the end the person can get something that's good. Sometimes people just want an espresso over ice so they can add a gallon of milk to it to make a cheap iced latte. So that's the reason. I think we try to explain the things we don't do by highlighting the things we do do.
Do you ever feel like you're part of something, like a movement of sorts? I feel like between specialty coffeehouses and brunch spots of this generation, you guys are redefining the urban landscape a little bit. I wish I did. With a lot of the vendors that we sell to, I feel like that because most of them are small business owners and we can talk about common issues we share. We can commiserate or complain. But I haven't really noticed a small business community that I'm aware of. There's a few online things that I've joined, but that's it really. I don't really feel like there's much—maybe I'm just not getting the e-mails [laughs].
Was there a business or store that existed as a model for you guys starting out? We didn't really have a business plan or a model. It was just an idea of quality. There has to be some way to do something consistently and have a consistent quality. It's hard to sustain, it's expensive, it's frustrating. Sometimes you have to rely on other people, but that was the main thing. So I guess it was abstract.
What's the toughest part of being a small business owner in New York? In New York City, it's probably the bureaucracy. Permits and fees and fines. That sort of stuff. Taxes. Just everything you have to fill out and be on top of.
Is coffee recession proof? I think it fluctuates. I think it's more about weather. If it rains, it's slower. People don't want to go out and get their coffee if it's raining. As far as recession, I think at first when everyone was talking about it on TV, I noticed a drop. Or people would be buying beans to make coffee at home. But now I don't think so.
Do people ever assume that the name Cafe Grumpy is supposed to tip them off about a certain vibe to the store? I wish they thought that because then they'd be happy when they realize it's not like that. It's funny to me if someone working's having a bad day and a customer's like, "Oh, they weren't super-friendly." But then the name's Cafe Grumpy so it can work both ways. Everyone has their days. We try to keep it ironic, but some days we're just having a bad day and we can use it as an excuse.
Who did your logo? Were you guys trying to create a certain aesthetic with it? It's always felt so personal to me in comparison to a lot of other stores. That was my brother. I don't think we tried for that aesthetic, that's just what we're working with. I think it just came out that way. My brother sat down and we made all these little sketches. We played around with them. But he hand-drew them. I think what's cool about it is that people coming from Japan notice it, like tourists respond to it—there's nothing to read. People just kind of identify with the face. It might feel like that for them before they get their coffee. Everyone makes up their own thing about it.
Who's your favorite Dwarf? Sleepy maybe? Not Grumpy.
Does it ever get difficult being in business with your husband (as co-owners)? Well, we used to work a lot more together. When we first opened, it was seven days, basically morning till night and I thought I was going to go out of my mind. But now we have different roles, so I think it's easier. But it's hard. You don't have much perspective so you bring it home and you're talking about it at home. There's not really a time when you're not thinking about it. Unless you're sleeping.
Can you share your favorite "Only in New York" story? It's nice how many celebrities come into the stores and it's just not a big deal. Well, except for the time you wrote about Michael Stipe on Twitter. When Brooke Shields came into our Greenpoint store, I think Kira (the barista there) screamed right in her face cause she got so excited about it. She was very nice about it. Starstruck. Mark Samuelson, that chef, came in. He didn't even order coffee, his girlfriend did. That was exciting for me.
Do you keep track of your Yelp closely? Didn't someone write about you specifically while you were working once? My mom likes to read it and tell me what people say. And I get the updates sent to me. Yeah, someone yelped about me while I was working. They complained about my service and then I got the update about it right after. I was calling out the username, but no one looked up. I think it's kind of funny when people are sitting in a store using free Wifi and yelp about their experience there. One of the funny ones was in Chelsea. You kind of have to concentrate if it's busy on the Clovers because you have to change the time and temperature and size and you're measuring the coffee and people are talking about how you look really angry behind the Clover machines. So it's just really interesting to see people's perspectives and if you add them all together, I'm sure there's a truth to it.
Have people using laptops created a big presence at your stores? At Greenpoint, yeah, because there's a lot of space. At Chelsea, it started to get kind of laptoppy, so we said no laptops. Now the Park Slope store is no laptops. I understand people need a place to go work, but I feel like if you're working all day (as a barista), you want to kill somebody if they're there all day, too. But one of my friends says he really appreciates Greenpoint because he can go there, get work done, and be around other people. So I do understand it. I think it's just a natural progression of coffee shops. If there's plenty of space, it's fine. Some people get mad, and they don't understand it, but it's a space issue. If laptop users shared their tables, it would be a totally different thing.
How do New Yorkers treat coffee differently than other places? I feel it's just a natural part of life in New York. When I worked in offices, you get coffee in morning, you get coffee on your break, you get coffee after work. It's an excuse to get out of work or get out of the office and treat yourself, because everything's kind of stressful and fast-paced. It's actually a lot of work to live in New York, even from getting up and getting to the door. So I think we use coffee in a different way. It's a little break, not just a place to hang out.
Would you keep expanding past these three stores? I'd like to get the Park Slope store up and start roasting and that's pretty much it for me. I would never ever want to own a coffee shop in another city or state. Just going from Greenpoint to Chelsea and back is tiring. I feel too invested in it. I'd be too embarrassed if it were bad or people were doing stuff bad. I wouldn't want to be associated with something like that. And physically, I just couldn't do that. I think it's great people can do that, I just don't know how you have the resources to fly around and check on stuff.
What do you notice the baristas in your stores have in common? There's a big variety. A lot of the people that work here are really into coffee, but they're either artists or musicians. Then some of the people are just "coffee-coffee," like that's everything. But it's a full time job and we give benefits. You can live a pretty good existence working at a coffeeshop, working here. Everyone's going on vacation all the time. [Laughs]
Did you quickly have to adjust to, like, "Oh, half our staff wants to go on tour this year" at some point? Yeah, we've always tried to be flexible. In the end, everyone's happier. They bring different experiences. They have all different personalities, whether you love all them or you don't, everyone adds their own little thing. It develops and transforms.
Are there any stereotypes for baristas that hold true? A lot of people apply for jobs here thinking that it's not hard work. Like they'll write on their resumes that they're looking to work somewhere laid back, not too stressful. It's actually work. You really have to work. If it's busy, you might actually be tired at the end of a shift.