Spotlight: Coffee Project New York

In part two of our spotlight on New York City’s specialty coffee scene, we catch up with Chi Sum Ngai and Kaleena Teoh, Co-founders of Coffee Project New York about how the pandemic has strengthened New York’s coffee community and the new challenges operators are now facing. Catch up on part one with Ever Meister here.

Main image: Coffee Project New York in Queens | Inset: Co-founders Chi Sum Ngai (right) and Kaleena Teoh | Photo credits: Courtesy of Coffee Project New York

Chi Sum Ngai (CSN) – New York has had the same supply issues as hospitality businesses around the world in terms of importing coffee. However, there are a lot of cafés in the city and many of us came together to discuss how to solve the problem.

We’ve tried creative solutions such as directly contacting coffee importers and even coffee farms themselves. The situation is improving but coffee is still getting stuck, with orders purchased even a year in advance still being delayed.

Kaleena Teoh (KT) – We’ve learned to take a step back to slow down a little bit. I feel like consumers understand that not everything needs to be in a rush and that means we can focus a little more on quality rather than just quantity.

For us, the silver lining has been taking a step back to look at the whole industry. I feel like New York’s coffee scene came out a little stronger after the pandemic. We were able to rely on each other and connect while learning to share resources a little better.

“New York’s coffee scene came out a little stronger after the pandemic”

Staffing and recruitment has become a massive challenge

CSN – Staff recruitment has become a massive problem since the pandemic hit. There was one point where every coffee shop on our Instagram account was hiring and every barista we know was working crazy hours.

Then again, when customers saw the situation, I think they became a little more compassionate. Everything in New York is so fast paced – if you want a cup of coffee you go into a café and expect to get out within five minutes. Now, people have become more patient and are giving baristas some time to breath, which is one of the better outcomes of the pandemic.

At the same time, many business owners are struggling to motivate baristas and show them there can be a career in hospitality or the coffee industry, which has led to many leaving the profession.
It’s also been a struggle for us at Coffee Project. Thankfully, because we’re very active in the community it has been less challenging for us to find baristas to cover shifts, although many people no longer do it full-time or have left the industry altogether.

Renting dynamics are shifting

CSN – We are seeing more places to rent than perhaps three or four months ago. However, larger coffee chains are also seeing the potential of lower rents and it’s now getting harder to find locations because landlords are renting to bigger corporates that can pay higher prices.

KT – As things have started to pick up, some of the more well organised smaller companies have been able to secure quite a few spaces in the city. However, the impact of Covid means there are still a lot of empty shops out there. While Fifth Avenue is packed again, there are a lot of empty store fronts in Soho.

CSN – Tenants who have better relationships with landlords tend to be able to make some creative arrangements to work together. For example, some landlords who are also developers have started offering different spaces that they’ve developed to tenants and will work out a deal perhaps in terms of a percentage of sales as rent.

This is what happened at our Chelsea location. The landlords needed someone to take over the spot so that the building tenants had some facilities, which we were able to provide by serving coffee.

Coffee Project New York in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan

The recovery is uneven and still has a long way to go

KT – Based on what we’re observing, footfall is probably around 60-70% of pre-Covid levels. We’re not seeing many tourists return, which is good for controlling the Covid situation, but bad for business.

CSN – We see differing trade patterns based on store location. For example, our residential area locations see standard Monday to Sunday traffic, and there isn’t really a quiet period.
Closer to Manhattan, our Chelsea location is busier during weekdays and traffic goes down as people go out of town to enjoy the weekend.

Brooklyn is our most stable location. It’s surrounded by residential areas, there are some businesses around, and there are a lot of cultural events going on, so all of that draws people to the area.

New York's coffee scene still holds tremendous potential

KT – I think there’s always room for growth in the coffee industry. In the past, we’ve always been very excited to see independent coffee shops opening and serving different roasts and brewing styles. New York is a melting pot and there’s always a little something for everyone.

I feel there is room for new concepts in New York, especially as the pandemic saw so many businesses close down. We’re now starting to see businesses come back, and some new coffee shops pop up and we’re very excited to see that change again.

CSM – We also see New York’s specialty coffee growing in terms of its culture evolving. People are starting to serve different variations of specialty coffee, like Vietnamese or Yemeni coffee. We’re starting to see specialty coffee that involves brewing culture, and that is very exciting to see.

KT – I can’t speak for everyone, but I do think there are more consumers appreciating higher end and specialty coffee. When we first started in 2015, we had fewer people asking about coffee origin or the processing type.

People weren’t as concerned with that detailed level of information back then. Nowadays, there are more people who care about where the coffee is from, whether it is ethically sourced, and how much did we paid for it.

I feel like there’s a bigger market for specialty coffee in New York today and we’ve seen so many independent coffee shops open in the past five years.

Sadly, because of the pandemic, we’ve also seen many businesses close. However, in the past year they’ve started reopening again and many have come back stronger than before – we’re a very strong community and the market is definitely there.
In part three, we chat with Carline Bell, CEO and Co-founder of the iconic Café Grumpy in New York City about the shift to suburban trade and the growing demand for talented staff.

This article was first published in Issue 9 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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