For New York City coffee enthusiasts of a certain age, the mid-2000s are now affectionately referred to as “the good old days”. Before there was an FB80 on every corner (for instance, mine), there were the new-frontierians: Gimme. Grumpy. Ninth Street. To a lesser extent, but now also a frontrunner, Joe. Where Café Grumpy was in 2005 could barely have hinted at where it, or New York City, would stand in fancy coffee today. In 2014, Café Grumpy has become one of the city's best-regarded–let's be honest–coffee brands, boasting a half-dozen cafes, a roastery, their own bakery, and, opening this weekend, a cafe in Grand Central Terminal.
But spend even just a minute in a room with Café Grumpy's co-owners, Chris Timbrell and Caroline Bell–they're married–and you'll quickly see that they are not the boasting types. They're not flamboyant (in fact, Mr. Timbrell's well-known for his Aussie mumble), and it's with minimal fanfare that the company's slow, organic growth has spread quality coffee across Brooklyn and Manhattan. From their first cafe, a neighborhood-focused cornershop in Brooklyn (where off-duty baristas came to grab coffee in their pajamas) to their game-changing second cafe in Manhattan's Chelsea (where New York would first learn about the Clover and the “$9 cup of coffee”), Grumpy has grown up into a big small business, known to New Yorkers, coffee tourists, and even watchers of the TV show “Girls”.
Earlier this winter, Grumpy expanded their roasting operations from the back of the original Greenpoint, Brooklyn cafe to a former flower warehouse just up the block. Joining their 15-kilo Probat L12 roaster is a 45-kilo G45, also by Probat, readying the minichain to serve wholesale customers and busy cafes alike. From a handful of staff and the owners working bar, the company employs now nearly sixty people; over the years alumni have left for love, babies, music, or to open their own cafes and bakeries.
This weekend, Grumpy will reach another milestone when their sixth cafe opens in a coveted spot in Grand Central Terminal. In what is surely a watershed moment for New York coffee, this new location replaces a highly trafficked Starbucks cafe.
We sat down with Caroline Bell in Greenpoint for a wee chat about how far Grumpy has come.
How did you meet Chris?
I worked at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and we used to go get coffee breaks together. I was the executive assistant to the head of North America. I had studied photography and French, and that was the job I got because my dad suggested I get health insurance. Chris previously worked at a chicken place in Australia called Rooster World.
What was the first coffee place you went to that persuaded you this might be something you would want to do?
I was living in Williamsburg and I remember Gimme! Coffee opened and I was like, oh my god, there's actually good coffee. I made Chris come out to Brooklyn before work one day and try it. He was going to move back to Australia with his job, but we decided to try to do something, because we kept complaining about NYC coffee.
How did it feel opening Greenpoint Grumpy in what, in 2005, must have seemed like a remote neighborhood?
It was basically because the people that owned that building were the only people that called me back. I went around to a bunch of different locations and said “I want to open a coffee shop,” and no one took me seriously and no one wanted to rent to me. It was too big for us, but they were pretty much the only people that would give us the time of day.
Right, you used to have an art gallery in the back.
We had an art gallery, we had music events, we rented it out to some church groups and people freaked out about that. We did everything we could to bring people in from the neighborhood when there were tumbleweeds blowing in the street.
Whose coffee were you serving then?
When we first opened our first coffee roaster was Victrola. Chris and I went out to Seattle and trained with Kyle Glanville [now of G&B Coffee] and Tony Konecny [now of Tonx Coffee]. I remember we tasted espresso all day and went out to get nachos and beer and I thought my stomach couldn't handle it, if this was what it was going to be like.
The opening of your second cafe in Chelsea in 2007 seems like it was a decisive moment for you: a transition from neighborhood cafe to a more carefully designed space in a new tradition of cafes, serving sophisticated coffee that you weren't afraid to take seriously in preparation or price. Did you feel this was a shift for you, or was it always where you were headed? Did it feel risky?
That might've happened in Greenpoint if we'd had any customers, but we were like, either we close Greenpoint or we're going to have to open another store. I think the neighbors in Chelsea were just excited and receptive. At that point we were using a few different roasters, and a few of them thought we wouldn't be able to sell coffee by the cup, that people weren't going to wait, but we knew we could do it. Clover had come and demoed at Greenpoint–Zander [Nosler, inventor of the Clover] had come by randomly and asked did we want to see this machine?
We were thinking, how do we brew in Chelsea if we want to offer a menu of different coffees? Can we even do this? We're still learning how to make it. We were throwing out beans on the 14th day, practicing milk steaming as we went along.
Over the years, you've gone from owning not just a couple of tastemaking cafes, but becoming an increasingly (but slowly) larger and more self-sufficient coffee organism. In 2009, you fired up your own roastery, in 2011, you launched a bakery to make all your treats in house. Some other roasters have made a very big deal about beginning to roast their own coffee, but Grumpy's always played it slow and low and sort of kept to itself as these big changes happen. Is that intentional?
We did bake in the beginning in Greenpoint! Chris baked marscapone brownies, Nick made biscotti. I would make granola and then fall asleep when I was supposed to be turning the granola.
We've never had a PR firm. I guess it just, our personalities, partially, and just…I feel like if you do something that's good quality and do the best job you can, eventually people will recognize that. I think it's almost to a fault sometime, I think we should promote ourselves a little more, people don't know that we roast or we bake or do wholesale or that we were open in 2005 or whatever, so it's sometimes to our detriment. I do the Twitter and Instagram, and even that's a challenge for me.
Did you ever think you'd be serving coffee to Times Square, or taking over a Starbucks space in Grand Central Station, or that specialty coffee was even capable of that?
No. I don't know what I thought, things changed fast. In past years I've started to be surprised that so many things were opening, and that it seemed to be normal. Time has gone by pretty fast to me. The coffee industry has changed a lot, and the customers are more aware of what they're drinking and eating. The trend of food-whatever-appreciation went along with the growth of coffee.
Does it feel like specialty coffee has become somehow WAY more legitimate and mainstream? Is there a “too mainstream” point for you?
Getting there. When I went to my doctor this week she was giving me her opinion on all these different roasters!
At this point, being a larger more known specialty brand in the biggest city in the country, do you feel like you're part of a national coffee community? How do you feel about your position in the local community?
I pay attention, but in coffee it's hard to have perspective because I'm at work and trying to pay bills and get the contractor paid so they finish the thing on time.
People ask, “how did you get so successful opening all these stores?”, and I don't see that yet. I just kept working and stuff kept happening. I think there are a lot of trends in coffee that are just trends, and it is a coffee business, but it's a lot more about being a small business. Coffee is the focus but as far as what I have to deal with every day, I didn't feel like a lot of those outside activities were helping me learn, except maybe when I took the Q course.
Your focus on just running the business smoothly seems to be what's helped you succeed the most–you're known for good hiring and good wages, starting baristas at around 50% above minimum wage and having very low turnover in the last 8 years.
The business should be for the people working, not for me. We want to create something that can work on its own and give people opportunities, otherwise what's the point? There's a lot of companies that have huge investors and those companies have the owner as ego figurehead type person. I don't know how our model is good for business in the future, but I feel like it's the only way I would want it to be. I think it has created issues for us financially. But it's expensive to live in New York, and I know people do other stuff too but if they're going to be here full time, they need to be able to pay their rent. We want people to take ownership, and that's what's helped us grow. Everyone has participated. Kira [Birney] would have her craft fairs and Cheryl [Kingan, now the green buyer] would do the music stuff. Now it's a little bigger than that, but it's still up to the people who work here if they have opinions or want to change stuff.
Obligatory question: a lot of people who know Grumpy know it's on the show Girls, but that's hardly the first time Greenpoint Grumpy has been the backdrop for film or TV. Can you name some of the other things that have shot there, anything particularly memorable?
Since the beginning we've had shoots at the cafe because the movie studio next door. Blue Bloods, Lipstick Jungle, The Black Donnelleys, what's that Jodie Foster movie? I don't remember. A bunch of random things, whatever's shooting at the studio next door and they need to have some sort of scene, they use it as a cafe. One time they turned it into a Kindergarten.
I know you and Chris love TV, is there anything you'd love to see Grumpy involved with either as a location or an ingredient?
In Blue Bloods with Tom Selleck, the carafe is actually full of coffee, so every time there's a carafe on that show it's full of our coffee! I'm secretly happy when we watch that.
Okay, speed round. Let's play a quick game of What's Better–Brooklyn or Manhattan?
Cats or Guinea Pigs?
Oolong or Green Tea?
Orange or Black?