If you’ve spent much time lollygagging in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you’ve seen Variety Coffee. Or rather, you’ve been seen from Variety Coffee—from the bench out front in particular. This coffee hub, one of the first places to serve third-wave coffee in Brooklyn, is one of the neighborhood’s prime people-watching venues—the Graham Avenue perch affords a particularly Brooklynian expanse of new-world hipster and old-world weird (uh, if you need to pick up a fresh loaf of bread AND a headstone for your tomb at the same time, Grande Monuments is a few doors down).
It’s on the wings of this successful cafe (and its quiet little brother, a tiny Variety offshoot on Driggs Avenue) that Variety launched into its next phase in the form of a spacious, welcoming cafe in nearby Bushwick that will also serve as a roastery.
This step is not just big for Variety, but also Bushwick. We’ve covered this neighborhood’s small, growing coffee scene before with loving testaments to Little Skips and Cafetería La Mejor, but Variety Bushwick marks the first major expansion of an established third-wave coffee business into the neighborhood. In a city full of evermore quality coffee roasters, Variety becomes the first with boots on the ground in Bushwick.
Gavin Compton, the shop’s owner and one of Variety’s original co-founders, sees the former paint store on Wyckoff Avenue and Himrod Street as a logical expansion of his business into the world of coffee roasting. Compton had taken a few forays back into the restaurant industry, his former sandbox, but according to him they “failed miserably,” and he decided it was time to recommit to Variety’s future.
The 1200-square-foot space sits on a sunny corner of Wyckoff just south of the L train, on a strip largely populated by Latin American groceries and old-school businesses–nothing too fancy. The renovation of the airy space includes a new storefront, hand-built bar, and a custom chandelier (Variety is and has always been all about the chandeliers) from Conant Metal & Light in Compton’s home state of Vermont. (Those handsome industrial sconces above the roasting area in back are, on the other hand, utility lights from Home Depot.) Only the refinished brick interior remains of the original space.
Compton shipped in flooring reclaimed from a sewing factory in Alabama, finding buttons and notions crammed into all the floorboards’ eyeholes during installation. A gorgeous neon sign juts out from the building’s second and third storeys, currently dim with the words “WYCKOFF PAINTS WALLPAPER”, which will be updated this summer by a neighborhood neon artist to say “VARIETY COFFEE ROASTERS”. Benches and sidewalk seating are forthcoming, assuming New York’s winter ever ends.
The coffee setup is in keeping with Variety’s understated quality, very-little-nonsense, serve the people approach. For espresso, they tricked out a workhorse La Marzocco Linea with two volume-service focused quality mods: Piero cap upgrades for better temperature stability and a foot-pedal for steam-control. Drip coffee is made via the classic French press into airpots method. A pastry case is filled with sweet and savory goods from Ceci-Cela and Blue Sky Bakery, soon to be joined by treats from nearby Ovenly. The coffee itself will remain will remain Stumptown (until the roaster is fired up), and above the bar, a 1979 Pioneer audio receiver pipes music through Cambridge Audio speakers.
Towards the back of the open room—there are a mere handful of marble brasserie tables scattered throughout—coffee roasting will take place. A Loring S15 Falcon roaster, along with a two-barrel Probat sample roaster liquidated from Dallis Bros. Coffee‘s former Queens location, will be manned by veteran Stumptown/Variety employee Daniel Sparks. Sample roasting has already been happening in a secret offsite location for months while Team Variety refines their profiles. Coffee sourcing for now is in the capable hands of Coffee Shrub and Red Fox Coffee Merchants, a new green coffee sourcing company helmed by 2010 Sprudgie Award winner Aleco Chigounis.
What’s always been most special about Variety is who’s behind the counter. Variety’s interaction with their community and customers have forged some of the closest bonds, and fullest tip jars, in the city. The Graham Avenue cafe is populated by such close-knit staff and customers, and baristas have been known to be so well-tipped—among, if not the best-tipped in all of New York City — that even when other employment opportunities have arisen, they’ve found it hard to leave. What’s been the formula for that space working so well on both sides of the bar, and can Compton apply it to Wyckoff Avenue?
“I think we each feel a real vested interest in the cafe,” said Hannah Newburn, who’s worked as a Variety barista for five years. Newburn is the second-longest-standing barista with the company, in an industry where turnover is the rule rather than the exception.
“Gavin makes the whole operation feel more like a cooperative enterprise and we each feel an obligation to each other and to the running of the space. The customers, of course, have a lot to do with the reciprocal goodwill,” said Newburn.
As for the success the cafe’s enjoyed so far, Compton can’t say he had a formula, but rather, a good influence.
“Dan Griffin was really integral in getting people that worked there excited about coffee,” says Compton of the now-Los-Angeles-based Griffin, a noted NYC coffee veteran currently with TG Lab. “Kyle Lind, too. I credit him a lot with what he did, creating systems that stuck, enabling us to serve people incredibly fast.” Lind and Griffin helped open several early influential cafes in New York City’s quality coffee boom, including Cafe Collage, El Beit, and Variety.
And what’s let Variety’s success last for so long?
“The employees,” said Compton without skipping a beat. “They really make it–they’re all really great, and continue to be great, years and years later. No one ever leaves. Ever.”