Ever since the first barrels of coffee arrived from Dutch sailing ships in New Amsterdam, New York City has been at the epicenter of coffee culture and commerce: New York is America’s original coffee town.
When coffee first arrived in Manhattan in the mid-1600s, it was a rare luxury enjoyed by just a privileged few. But as the colonies chafed against British rule, the tide began to turn from tea to coffee (Boston Tea Party, anyone?).
Later this week, Starbucks unveils a new premium coffee experience, an homage to the city’s legacy, in its Starbucks Reserve™ Roastery, located in the historic meatpacking district. It is a moment to consider how New York has shaped Starbucks, and how the coffee brand became a part of the city’s coffee scene.
Related news: Starbucks in New York City Timeline
Coffee as an act of patriotism
“As the colonies began clamoring for independence from England, drinking coffee became a patriotic act,” said Erin Meister, in her 2017 book, New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History. “After the Revolutionary War, there was no real turning back, and coffee became a more significant part of life in New York.”
By the early 1800s, the city was on its way to becoming the new nation’s coffee capital. The southern tip of Manhattan became known as the Coffee District. Its cobblestone streets were lined with brokers’ offices, who would bid on samples of green, unroasted coffee fetched by errand boys from ships docked nearby. By the late 1800s, the buying and selling of coffee became more formalized with the creation of the Coffee Exchange on Pearl Street in 1882.
It was during the late 1800s that the aroma of coffee roasting reached the Coffee District as well. Coffee brokers began to roast small batches to taste roasted coffee before buying. And as the first commercial roasters were developed, brokers branched out into roasting.
“Before downtown rents spiked, lower Manhattan was constantly enveloped in the aroma of roasting coffee,” according to Meister’s book. “Surely if the city itself wasn’t so loud, passersby would have been able to hear the simultaneous popping of tons of beans hitting second crack.”
The city’s immigrants also influenced the way the beverage was enjoyed by its inhabitants. There were British clubhouses with curtained booths, Viennese-style coffee shops with marble counters and German bakeries that paired coffee with a sweet.
"New York did coffee in such a big way," Meister said in an interview. "The other big coffee towns served as a place for political conversation. In New York, it was more about community. It was influenced by different coffee cultures."
Fueling the city that never sleeps
By the 20th century, coffee kept the city buzzing. Coffee was everywhere. Brewed coffee was a staple of diners, bodegas and automats. There was also high-end coffee if you knew where to look. One of America’s first espresso machines served espresso in Greenwich Village starting in 1927.
Mid-century, coffee houses and foam cups from street carts and bodegas fueled New York, with the iconic blue Greek-key (Anthora) paper takeout coffee cups carried throughout the city.
Ric Rhinehart, Chief Executive Officer of the Specialty Coffee Association, describes the coffee scene in New York during this time.
“Folks in Manhattan thought of coffee in one of two ways – espresso at a highly esteemed venue or a cup on the street corner,” Rhinehart said. “In the popular culture, there wasn’t room for this idea of connoisseurship for coffee.”
A new kind of coffeehouse
By the the early 1990s, specialty coffee began to capture the imagination of the American public, starting on the West Coast. Starbucks first cafés in Vancouver, B.C., Chicago and Portland had created a phenomenon, propelling the company’s initial public offering in June 1992 and expansion to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Washington, D.C. The New York Times declared in September 1992, “Americans are finally waking up to the pleasures of good coffee.” The company’s success spurred other European-inspired espresso bars to pop up in major eastern U.S. cities. But Starbucks had not yet arrived. Many wondered if Starbucks had missed the train.
‘If I can make it here I can make it anywhere’
In October 1993, Starbucks announced that it would leap into New York City. It was headline news, with newspapers writing, “Starbucks Brews Up Storm in Big Apple” and “Starbucks Coffee Chain Hopes to Turn Big Apple Into Bean Town.” One article even included a pronunciation guide for these new espresso beverages, like “LAH-tay.”
For the 40-year-old president and chief executive officer of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, it was a make-or-break moment.
“New York held special symbolism for me, since it’s my hometown as well as the nation’s biggest city,” he reflected in his book, “Pour Your Heart Into It.” “But with its high rents and tough labor market, it also concerned us. Specialty coffee was catching on all over the country, competition was heating up.”
The company’s strategy was to offer exceptional service and quality and the third-place experience in residential areas, avoiding the higher-end, higher-rent areas.
“We stayed away from everything in high tourist areas at first,” said Dan Shallit, a 20-year store development partner in New York. “We stayed on secondary roads to keep costs down. We were doing things right. Our name was being built for us by people talking about us.”
The exception to the lower-key residential approach was Starbucks first store in New York, at 87th & Broadway on the tony Upper West Side. When it opened its doors on April 22, 1994, it was the largest store the company had ever opened and was a showpiece of Starbucks design, with comfortable seating, two espresso bars and new technology to improve the speed of service. The company committed to opening a total of 100 stores in Manhattan within four years, an audacious goal considering the company then only had a little more than 300 stores in the world.
Howard Schultz wrote about this era in his foreword to the New York Coffee Guide in 2017, “A line of curious customers snaked around the block; not many people then had tasted espresso drinks. Coffee as craft was just emerging in America.”
Starbucks would open 10 more locations in its first year, including its 4,000-square-foot Astor Place store in Greenwich Village. The company then began branching out, opening 15 or 16 new stores in Manhattan each year, including its first cafés in the Financial District and Times Square. It became a place to meet and connect, known for its purple chairs and high level of customer service.
Meister has a theory for New York’s embrace of Starbucks during those early years. “New Yorkers really insist on three things at the same time: They want quality; they want inexpensive products; and they want speed,” she said. “What happened was that Starbucks perfected the combination of all three of those things. They made an environment that was accessible for New Yorkers. It hit everything that a New Yorker needed.”
Part of the zeitgeist
Within just a few years, Starbucks had become part of the zeitgeist of the city. In the 1998 film, “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s characters were regulars at the same Upper West Side Starbucks. In 2000’s “Best in Show,” couple Hamilton and Meg Swan describe how they met at Starbucks. “Not the same Starbucks. But we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other.” In 2005, David Letterman had coffee pumped directly to a spigot at his desk in the Ed Sullivan Theater from the store across the street at 54th & Broadway.
“It was an exciting time in New York,” said Alan Hilowitz, a Starbucks partner who worked in the New York office for six years starting in 1998. “We were such a big part of the culture as we were growing and doing new things, testing different formats.”
Local partners reached out to iconic New York institutions and community organizations, volunteering each Earth Day in Harlem’s Morningside Park and donating to kids in need with the Holiday Toy Drive. Starbucks opened its first store in partnership with Magic Johnson in Harlem in 1999 and would launch a new model for community stores there again in 2011.
Over the next two decades, new design concepts often made their debut in New York, like the company’s first ever express-format store and a location dedicated to mobile order and pay. Stores with job training centers in Jamaica, Queens and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn have helped create economic and social change locally, and provide job training for young people.
Today, the 350 New York Starbucks stores are a part of the vibrant and eclectic mix of more than 3,000 coffee shops in New York City. The city is known for its artisanal experiences and innovative roasting and brewing techniques.
“As humans, we fill some niche in our lives with coffee that nothing else quite fills,” said Rheinhart from the Specialty Coffee Association. “It gives us a sense of being energized to interact with other humans. Coffee is rarely a solitary activity. Whether you’re in any big city around the world today, coffee has filled that role of the exchange of ideas and the catalyst to action. New York is the exact apex of that concept.”
The next chapter
On Friday (Dec. 14), Starbucks will open its New York Roastery – a tribute to the city’s past and present. The immersive experience in the Meatpacking District at 61 Ninth Avenue will celebrate the heritage of coffee craft, with the sights and sounds of coffee’s journey with a one-of-a-kind experience.
“New York is a hub in the world,” said Liz Muller, chief design officer of Starbucks. “It’s an unbelievable place with such history. We designed a place for New Yorkers, and also for shoppers and museum-goers and tourists. Where they might learn, where they’re always welcome. That’s the dream.”
Jennifer Warnick contributed to this report.