When is a Joe not like a Joe?
The venerable New York City cafe brand opened its twelfth location late last month in Manhattan, in a neighborhood realtors have taken to calling Hudson Square. By now the cafe formula for our longtime friends & partners at Joe is no secret: pair contemporary roasting & cafe design with an earned New Yorky identity, plunk it down in a busy neighborhood, earn a brigade of die-hard regulars, then wash, rinse, and repeat. It’s a model that echoes back to Joe’s original location, on Waverly and Gay just off Washington Square Park, and has been adapted to fit high-volume settings in Grand Central Terminal and Columbia University. Except that this latest Joe comes in the form of a collaboration with a powerful partner: Cadillac.
Yes, Cadillac—the venerable American automobile institution, formerly of Detroit, now of Manhattan. Cadillac has transformed several floors of an office tower in lower Manhattan into its new world headquarters, a move aimed at updating the brand for 21st century relevance. The main floor of that headquarters is now primed to become a culture hub for the neighborhood, with rotating art installations, DJs, plentiful tables and meeting nooks, a spacious and airy outdoor patio that feels more DTLA than NYC, and perhaps most astonishing of all, free WiFi. All they needed was a coffee brand to make the whole thing work.
Enter Joe, whose founder Jonathan Rubinstein chatted with me over an Underwest donut—we nibbled—and a cappuccino on the terrace during the cafe’s second day in business. “The typical Joe is 400 square feet,” he tells me, “and this one is 12,000.” With Cadillac’s design budget for the project estimated at “several million dollars”, the space offered an incredible ready-made opportunity for the team at Joe. “All we had to do is bring our equipment and staff,” Rubinstein says.
But that doesn’t mean the project was built to some focus group formula. “We can do anything that we choose to do here,” Rubinstein tells me. “There’s no parameters based on Cadillac.” That means for the first time Joe’s range of offerings will grow to include beer and wine, perfect for enjoying that spacious outdoor patio scene, or for a sip-and-gawk at the space’s interactive art exhibits (curated by Visionaire). Guests can expect beer curated by Beer Table, alongside a food program from Watty & Meg.
On the coffee side, it’s a La Marzocco Strada EE espresso machine serving up a proprietary blend Joe has built for Cadillac. Dubbed “The Runabout”, it’s a bit more conservative of a flavor profile than Joe’s standard Waverly blend, and was named in honor of the first Cadillac car. Collaborations like this are always a give and take; on my visit the space was dominated by no fewer than 3 sexy new Cadillac luxury automobiles. Never before have I been less inclined to spill my mug of filter.
But maybe that’s the hook. For a proudly independent company like Joe, this style of collaboration might seem a bit different—coffee at the fancy auto boutique!—but in reality, it offers them the ability to occupy locations for which they’d otherwise be unlikely candidates. You may have noticed that we’re in the era of the investment and / or buyout here in specialty coffee; for an indie like Joe, collaborations with major brands offer a different sort of platform for exposure, while maintaining control over the product and services. The press bonanza around this cafe’s opening—see this feature in Bloomberg—amounts to a major PR coup for an indie like Joe.
“We’re now seeking these opportunities where the investment is minimal,” Rubinstein says, “and that’s the way of the world when you haven’t been heavily invested in and don’t have $500,000 to go find locations.” Next up, the brand will open one of several coffee bars planned for the Westfield World Trade Center shopping destination. In the meantime, Joe’s collaboration with Cadillac is definitely something a little different for the brand.
The light airy patio, the free WiFi, the nice furniture, the expanded menu with adult beverages—it all works. Would that it were so simple, I’d write this damn website from there most weekdays. Fusing brand collaborations into spaces that don’t suck is actually very hard to do, and on paper I’m not sure the Cadillac brand renaissance vis-à-vis the Manhattan specialty coffee scene should work. But the proof is in the cafe, which is one of my favorite new bars to open in the United States this year. For the torrid year this has been so far for openings in this country, that is saying something.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
Photos by Zachary Carlsen.