Concluding our spotlight feature on New York's specialty coffee scene, we chat with Carline Bell, Co-founder of the iconic Café Grumpy
about the shift to suburban trade and the growing demand for talented staff. Catch up on part one with Ever Meister here
and part two with Coffee Project New York here
Main Image: Café Grumpy at The Rockefeller Center in New York | Inset: Caronline Bell, Co-Founder, Café Grumpy | Photo credits: Courtesy of Café Grumpy
Covid-19 is still having an impact, but the situation is improving
I’m very thankful to work in coffee because I don’t think I could have gotten this far through the pandemic without it. The Omicron variant, coupled with people not fully returning to offices, is still adversely affecting retail stores in New York but I’m hopeful things will start turning around in the spring.
The beginning of the pandemic, which feels so long ago now, was a very surreal experience. We had to temporarily close our cafés and furlough most of our staff. We then focused on the roasting side of our business and retail sales at grocery stores to cater to people staying at home.
Online sales were also a lifeline for us during the pandemic and increased significantly. On the one hand we’ve been very grateful for these sales – on the other it’s been a daunting task to pack orders and ship them out.
At-home coffee has also made us think much more about what consumers need and want. It dawned on me that not everyone has a grinder at home, so we increased the number of grinding options on our website. Thinking more about customer experience has been positive for specialty roasters. It’s made us think a little more carefully about accessibility, who is buying coffee and why they’re drinking it.
Sadly, we had to permanently close one location and as we’ve slowly reopened some of our stores it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s been stressful for staff concerned about their health, and for customers adapting to in-store safety measures. It’s still a very strange world in New York right now.
That being said, I remain optimistic and hopeful. People are slowly returning to New York, and we’ve recently opened a new location in the Rockefeller Center. There will likely be more hybrid working with people splitting their week between home and the office, which will reduce commuter traffic, but I’m looking forward to the city becoming livelier and the return of tourists.
Going forward, I think people will appreciate the small things like a good cup of coffee much more than before Covid-19 hit.
“Mental health awareness has become a big issue for us”
New York’s specialty coffee scene has become more accessible
We chose the name ‘Café Grumpy’ as a push-back to some of the snobbery that used to be associated with specialty coffee shops. Today, we’re still trying to create a welcoming environment for our customers to experiment and try new things.
I remember being so excited to be featured in The New York Times when we opened our first store in 2005. Back then, new coffee shops were destinations where if you worked in specialty coffee you would travel miles to taste the espresso and chat with the baristas.
That’s a little different today because there are now coffee shops everywhere and the focus is a little more on convenience. You might pick your favourite café based on your route to work, or your favourite neighbourhood spot, which shows there is a little more accessibility in the market.
Consumers are also far more aware of specialty coffee and have higher expectations than ever. They’re interested in trying new products and coffee varieties, which has increased with more people brewing at home and wanting to support local cafés during the pandemic.
Sustainability and ethical sourcing have also become crucial. It has never been more important for cafés to communicate where coffee comes from, how it’s produced, and share stories about producers. Consumers are far more discerning about where their money ends up today.
The talent pool has grown, but so has demand for the best staff
In general, the level of skill in the New York market has risen, simply because there are more coffee shops for baristas to gain experience. However, there are also many more coffee shop vacancies to fill, so that can make finding the best talent challenging.
We had over 70 people working for us across all of our locations before the pandemic started (we now have just under 50). We’ve always tried to be competitive with our pay and our benefits. We start our baristas at $18 per-hour plus tips and benefits and it goes up from there for our long-term baristas and managers.
Cappuccino to go with the iconic Café Grumpy logo
Where the focus might have been on pouring the perfect latte art in the past, the current situation is more about navigating the challenges Covid-19 has brought. Our staff are under increasing stress because interactions with customers that were once easy and lighthearted have been reshaped by barriers such as masks, mandates, partitions, etc.
Foodservice staff have endured a lot over the last 18 months and that’s why mental health awareness has become a big issue for us. One of the ways we’ve tried to address this is by offering all our staff the Headspace app, which helps with mindfulness exercises like meditation and yoga activities.
We’ve also tried to be more flexible and aware of what goes on in people’s lives outside the coffee shop. Whether a staff member is juggling studies or a separate job, we want to make them feel happy and secure at work – that’s really important.
We’ve seen a shift to suburban trade
During the pandemic, our stores in Brooklyn have been trading steadier than our stores in Manhattan. That’s simply because people are working from home and visiting whichever store is closest to them.
Our Financial District location is currently our slowest store and our Grand Central location, which used to be one of our busiest, has also taken a hit. I think it will take a while for these once-busy areas of the city to fully recover. As a result, we’re seeing many more stores open in the suburbs and more operators considering other footprints like drive-thrus.
Smaller coffee shops are becoming squeezed
There is a lot of big investment going into the New York coffee shops market today, which can make it more challenging for smaller operators to compete. I think we’re going to see more brands opening 50-60 coffee shops with a lot of capital behind them.
Smaller businesses have also been hit by the uneven distribution of the government’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which saw only around one third of applicants receiving any support during the pandemic.
There were businesses on one side of the street receiving half-a-million dollars, whereas coffee shops across the street got nothing. Because of this, restaurant groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the The National Restaurant Association are trying to get the government to replenish the fund so that all businesses get their fair share of support – this remains a big challenge for independent coffee shops in New York currently.
This article was first published in Issue 9 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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