Midtown Manhattan, to many, remains a coffee mystery. Way back in 2009, when Culture Espresso opened its doors at the highly unlikely intersection of 6th Avenue and West 38th Street, specialty coffee was still a twinkle in the neighborhood’s eye. In fact, you were far more likely to find a specialty button in this area, once the notions and trimmings heart of New York’s disappearing garment district.
On my first visit to Culture Espresso in its early days, I will admit to having been a pessimist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was sure the place wouldn’t make it six months. I remember walking into the store in the dog days of a hot NYC summer. The door was wide open—because the shop had no air conditioning. The entire cafe was empty, and by empty I mean the barista was in back doing something else, for nearly five minutes—a New York eternity—and I considered, for nostalgia’s sake, how much fun it might be to heist that electric blue La Marzocco FB70 on the counter that I remembered well from its tenure at Intelligentsia Broadway in Chicago, should the barista in fact continue to never return to the front counter. While I waited for anyone to show up, I watched customers come and then leave—at first, because no one appeared to be working, and later, because the cafe didn’t have iced coffee in summer, or didn’t take card payments in Midtown. There was no way this place was gonna survive, I thought, looking around the confusedly stylish room, shelves hopefully stocked with bags of Intelligentsia coffee. How wrong I was.
Fast forward to 2014, and Culture’s had a complete turnaround. Originally founded by business partners Jody LoCascio and Adam Craig (you’ll recognize Craig—as well as the 38th street cafe’s wallpaper—from his earlier stint at Variety Coffee in Williamsburg), the company’s now helmed by LoCascio, with the adroit help of director-of-all-whatnot Johnny Norton. From that long-ago unstaffed, confused cafe counter, the company’s leapt to being one of the most sophisticated coffee bars in Midtown, serving Heart coffee, a roaster arguably progressive to this coast, in a changing array of brew methods (everything from Hario V60 to Fetco to “coffee shots” on the 38th Street La Marzocco Strada).
The company’s second coffee bar, Culture 36, opened last Monday just north of New York Pennsylvania Station—which, despite the slow creep of quality coffee moving closer and closer remains almost defiantly a chain-store-driven West Midtown desert for those seeking a great cup. Culture 36, wedged into a wall of tall buildings and eerie-bright streetlights at night, is even more of an oasis than the original Culture. Soothing green wallpaper and natural wood emerge out of a landscape of bank advertisements; the smells of delicious coffee and fresh-baked chocolate cookies transmit a welcome feeling from the front door. For those who love fancy coffee—or those from Brooklyn, Portland, or anywhere else that celebrates this micro-world, the signifiers will be immediately recognizable. You have stepped off the corporate grid landscape. You are home.
Over the weekend, I spoke with Johnny Norton about the little-Midtown-cafe-that-could’s unlikely evolution.
Sprudge: What did you guys change to become what you are today? When I first went in, the place was a bit of a shitshow, and then I went a year later and it was really fancy and had kettle chips. Tell me about the trajectory up til now.
Johnny Norton: It’s kind of been a natural progression over the years- It was originally modeled after some of Adam [Craig]’s favorite Australian coffee bars, which include a full lunch and food program alongside quality coffee. I came on board in 2010 and really wanted to focus on coffee. Jody and I worked together to preserve the best elements of the food program, namely the chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, while putting pretty much all of our other attention on the coffee. We chopped the bar down a foot, and upgraded to a Fetco, Strada, Mahlkönig EK43, a gang of espresso grinders, Kyoto drippers, nitro cold brew, and every manual method under the sun. We began cycling through just about every roaster in America that we thought was doing interesting things.
Yeah! You’ve been through a bunch of roasters—how long have you been with Heart and how has such a light roasted style coffee gone over in Midtown?
We’ve been with Heart about 2 years now. We’ve spent time brewing Intelligentsia, PT’s, Stumptown, Grumpy, MadCap, Wrecking Ball, Sightglass, and of course, Heart. We have always enjoyed trying a variety of coffees, but Heart was consistently chosen as a staff favorite at blind cuppings, and they’ve been such a great support for us. We like the way that they source and roast coffee, but still have a totally approachable feel to their style. Which is something we’ve always tried to do. I like it when comfort food can be made interesting, or interesting food can be made comfortable. I’ll have to tell you about when we made Guatemala Esperanza slushies with Kenya Gichatiani whipped cream sometime!
Are people confused when they come upon a coffee shop like Culture in the location(s) you’ve opened in?
There’s nothing that makes me happier than hearing someone refer to us as an oasis, and it happens on a daily basis. There’s so many artists and designers who are my age and kind of get stuck in Midtown. A lot of our customers live in Brooklyn, and want food that is better than your chain store stuff, or served to you by your peers, and it feels good to provide that. Plus, I’ve always had this strange love affair with Midtown. It gets a lot of flak, but it really feels like the real NYC to me. Beyond the gift shops and tourists, there are still a lot of hidden gems in the area. Surprisingly cool bars, restaurants, and bookstores, although they’re all off the beaten path a bit. I’ve lived in Greenpoint for 12 years now, and I love it, but sometimes it can feel a bit like a small college town, y’know? Where everyone gets your Ian MacKaye jokes. It’s nice to be forced to exist in a bustling area of extremely diverse people.
What’s next for you guys? 32nd street? Hoboken?
We’ll probably continue trying to provide good coffee and food to overlooked areas, but we’ve also talked about opening everything from a taco shop to a Midtown dive bar. We love making food, and walking around NYC, so I guess we’ll just have to see what feels right next.
Liz Clayton is the Associate Editor at Sprudge.com, and helms our NYC desk. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.