In a gritty, industrial pocket of Bushwick, Brooklyn, just off the Montrose L stop, City of Saints’ new cafe and roastery operates out of a former steel smelting plant surrounded by music studios, art galleries, and start-up offices. Colorful murals on either side of the entryway echo the street art that saturates Meserole Street, and beautiful natural light floods in through a skylight and roll-up garage door, softening the otherwise cold and barren concrete space. The roastery/cafe was bustling with activity on a blustery Monday afternoon: the tables and chairs in the loading dock were populated with hoodie-wearing, laptop-armed customers, a barista tended to a stream of regulars popping in for post-lunch drinks, and the handsome, silver 70-kilogram Loring Peregrine roaster droned away in the production area just beyond the bar.
Once a little takeaway spot serving Sightglass Coffee out of Hoboken, New Jersey, City of Saints has risen into a multi-location roasting company in just two years. After getting their roasting operation started at Pulley Collective, they opened a second cafe in the East Village a year later, and moved into their own space in 2015.
Running three coffee bars, hosting public events, and producing enough coffee for themselves and several wholesale accounts, has kept City of Saints busy since they were featured in our Build-Outs of Summer series last year. I sat down with City of Saints’ Director of Coffee Jim Osborn, barista-turned-marketing manager Lanny Huang, and co-founder Joe Palozzi to chat about how they’ve been settling into their newest space and where they’re headed next.
Now that you’re fully up and running, did you run into any kinks while settling into the roastery space?
JO: Adding a cafe to our production space has certainly allowed us to grow in a variety of ways, but these opportunities sometimes come at the expense of logistical finesse. From a growth perspective, it’s a much more compelling place to host friends and potential partners than a standalone roastery or cafe would be on its own. It facilitates quality control and encourages experimentation with the coffees, and it provides a wonderful introduction to both sides of the business for anybody first discovering City of Saints. However, it’s a darn pain receiving all those pallets of green coffee when it’s snowing out and there’s a sudden rush at the register.
The production and retail aspect are so integrated, sometimes almost dangerously so—but if we’re doing a production cupping or sample cupping and a customer’s curious, they can always grab a spoon, so that makes it fun and a little more engaging. I like to think our most affectionate visitors come for the coffee and stay for the forklift acrobatics.
You run three shops in really different neighborhoods. How does the vibe and sense of community differ in your other cafes? What’s the unifying factor that makes each of them a City of Saints space?
Lanny Huang: I think aesthetically and functionally, each space evolved to meet the needs of the communities it joined. And I really think the unifying factor is that kind of open-mindedness—knowing that the brand or the coffee isn’t going to suffer just because it looks different in different places. In fact, it helps us and helps people see the quality of our coffee in different contexts. So I really love that we’re able to present the same coffee in Hoboken in a to-go drink with a homemade syrup, or in the East Village behind the Modbar with the nice lighting for an office worker or NYU student, or here in Bushwick where we have all this space and people are kind of encouraged to spend a little more time hanging out here.
What are some ways you’ll be engaging with the public to participate in, and feed, New York City’s growing coffee community?
LH: We have in the works a social media campaign to get a lot of Brooklyn roasters together and create something similar to a “disloyalty card” and hopefully we’ll be executing it in the form of like, a passport, where you can get a stamp on this physical object, and it becomes a sort of travel log for people curious about New York coffee. You can spend an entire weekend in Brooklyn and see a dozen coffee roasteries, and still have another dozen more to see the next weekend.
There’s also a gallery two doors down and we’ll be coordinating with their openings and having our coffee shop open for a little pre-reception kind of thing, or we might have some sort of auxiliary event happening alongside an opening, where an artist might be here with some other work. And eventually we’ll host a latte art throwdown, and we’d like to have educational events—one of our baristas already holds public cuppings here every Saturday, but it’s just through word-of-mouth, so eventually it’ll be more advertised. I really want this location to be utilized every weekend for different community-related events.
You previously mentioned plans to offer time-share and roasting services, like the one you used to participate in at Pulley Collective in Red Hook. Is this something you’re currently doing?
JO: It is something we’re doing, and what keeps it fun and interesting is how different each partner and project is from the next. We think there are a few different modes that we can enter as a roasting facility: time-sharing, toll-roasting, and wholesale roasting or consulting services, but what we’ve found is that if you’re a little more open-minded with each partner, and can determine what they want to do and what is preventing them from being able to do it, we can do something that allows those gaps to be filled and lets them realize those ambitions without waiting another 10 years or doing it in another city. It’s not expressly time-sharing generally—we actually don’t have anyone who operates explicitly on the timesharing arrangement.
Joe Palozzi: Should a coffee shop choose to want to differentiate themselves, even if they don’t have the experience, or don’t want to invest in the experience, they can go with a consulting or toll-roasting arrangement. If we have someone who’s learning the ropes of roasting while we’re doing the toll-roasting, at some point they can transition from one to the other when they’re confident enough to do it. There’s a large learning gap when you need to transition from being a hobbyist to a professional roaster. A lot of people don’t have the wherewithal to know exactly how to purchase green coffee, how to secure a contract, how to roast, or how to come up with a profile. But they also know they want to roast something with a certain profile and don’t want to offer the same blend another cafe three blocks away is serving, they want something specific—and that’s where we can start forming some interesting relationships.
You’ve been very consistent in avoiding labels and mentioned your approach to coffee is to stay open-minded. What are some specific ways you’ve been doing this as you’ve continued to expand?
LH: Down to every little minute detail, even when it comes to asking how something is extracted, you find that everyone has been given a set of rules, this restrained box: This is what good coffee tastes like, this is what good coffee looks like, and it’s going to be served like this, and these are the perimeters—so everything, from how you make and serve it to how you package it, is starting to feel a little dogmatic. And we’ve experienced the range of spaces and contexts and preparations that coffee can be enjoyed and experienced, and I think the norm is that you’re often surprised by what’s possible. So with that in mind, we’re trying to keep ourselves open to trying and offering anything. We have a Sumatran coffee, for example, and we have a natural Yirgacheffe as a cold-brew coffee. We TDS all of our cold brew—it’s been getting this bad rap, so we’re exploring the best place we can take it—and we mess with the extraction of our espresso to the limits of what you’d expect.
JO: Generally, as much as I love the coffee community and coffee culture, not only in New York but elsewhere, there are a lot of people playing the same exact game, and it really doesn’t need to be that way. You can excel and be fantastic and do something that many people love, and still do it differently. You can put different things in the hopper, different people behind the bar, different things in different contexts, and be more sincerely open-minded instead of just being another version of the same. There’s room for both.
Joanna Han (@joannakarenina) is a Sprudge.com contributor based in New York City. Read more Joanna Han on Sprudge.