If you’ve never heard of Long Island City, Queens, you might have some mistaken assumptions. You might think it’s a part of Long Island proper, for example—a swath of ocean-proximal suburbia radiating out from Gotham’s sterner streetscapes. And while it’s true that Brooklyn and Queens aren’t technically attached to the continental United States, minutes-from-Manhattan Long Island City is still a bona fide part of NYC. It’s also the heart of New York’s coffee boom. And its latest addition is Coffee Project New York.
From larger footprint roasters like Gregorys, Joe Coffee, and Birch to incubators like Regalia Roasting Collective—and of course neighborhood pioneers Sweetleaf, who now roast across the bridge in Brooklyn—today’s Long Island City is an eclectic mix of film and TV soundstages, taxi depots, and the aroma of fresh-roasted craft coffee. Coffee Project NY, a women-owned operation with small cafes in Manhattan and Brooklyn, makes a splash in the LIC pond with a brand new 3,725-square-foot roastery, coffee training lab, and adjoining pocket cafe.
Sound ambitious? It’s nothing new for life-and-business partners Chi Sum (Sum) Ngai and Kaleena Teoh, who catapulted into the coffee world in 2015 after opening their first location, in the East Village, on the wings of a shared dream—and with no formal background in coffee.
“One day I just woke up and said, ‘It’s time to start a coffee shop’,” said Ngai of Coffee Project’s inception. “I didn’t work at any cafes before,” she continues. (At the time, Ngai worked in IT, and Teoh as a psychiatric case manager.) “I just told [Teoh] ‘Maybe we can quit our full-time jobs and start a coffee shop,’ so this is exactly what happened.”
The pair’s first cafe was intended to be a cozy neighborhood spot, but their shared enthusiasm for coffee—and all of its geeky potential—quickly took flight. “In our first location, all I wanted was a basic drip bar, basic espresso machine, and to get this going,” said Ngai. “But the more I started learning about specialty coffee and this industry, the people, I realized there was so much more to it.”
The second Coffee Project New York, tucked into a quiet Downtown Brooklyn side street, boasts a more serious approach to the craft, with a Ground Control Cyclops, a Steampunk, and an array of pour-over methods to choose from, along with a suite of interesting coffees from roasters less often seen in the five boroughs, like Saint Frank or Brandywine.
But with an increasing need to train baristas for their two busy cafes, as well as a desire to push their own careers further, Ngai and Teoh found it challenging to get the education they needed—the nearest SCA campus, for instance, was well off in New Jersey. Strange, Ngai thought—shouldn’t one be able to get anything they want in New York City of all places?
“Sometimes we would have to fly all the way to somewhere else to get things done,” said Ngai of the certification courses she and her team wanted to pursue. To meet this need for themselves and the larger community, Coffee Project NY will be New York City’s only SCA Premier Training Campus, offering the organization’s Education courses as well as their own classes. (Both Teoh and Ngai are certified instructors, too.)
The pair’s (latest) realized dream itself is a fluid three-part space in a stylish mixed-use building on the South “coast” of Long Island City. Entering from the street, you’ll walk past the roasting room—in full showcased display surrounded by all-glass walls—on your way to a serious, but approachable coffee bar serving Coffee-Project-roasted and guest coffees, alongside treats, small prepared toasts, and sandwiches. The cafe blends into the building’s lobby spaces, including a seasonal atrium, for those who wish to stay and work—the cafe space itself only offers a minimal five-seat tasting bar. And in view just beyond the bar? The capacious training lab.
The lab itself does not disappoint: for espresso comparison, baristas can choose from a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle, La Marzocco Linea, Sanremo Opera, and Faema E71, served by Nuova Simonelli Mythos II and Compak PK100 grinders. Multiple pour-over methods are here to tinker with as well, along with a Ground Control Cyclops. Ngai says she sees the space as not just a serious coffee school, but more of a playground.
“For me to be able to put all this equipment together for Long Island City, it’s because everyone shares the same goal. They want to be part of this. They want to put effort into making this community a little bit more fun, like showing off technology a little bit so the baristas get to play a little bit more,” Ngai says.
And just like her dream of opening the first shop, Ngai acknowledges it may have sounded crazy at first—but feels worth it.
“People asked ‘What if it doesn’t work out?'” says Ngai. “I said, I just want it to happen.”
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network and the co-author of Where to Drink Coffee. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.