The north end of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, has not historically been considered a foodie hotbed. Good luck finding a selection of artisanal pickles there in 2013—hell, it used to be difficult to even find factory-made feta.
But let's say you blinked your eyes at the intersection of Flushing and Tompkins, an area most notable for giant parking lots, a gas station, and a clear view of a giant, foreboding hospital locals have nicknamed “The Death Star”. Let's say you could envision for a moment that the nearest bleak monolith—the former Pfizer pharmaceutical factory—had become repopulated by a post-pharmaceutical food commune, an industry of industrialism, a food fever dream of the cured, cultured, and curated. That (very weird) fantasy would be real, and of course, inevitably, it would include a coffee roaster among its ranks.
A recent comer to the New York coffee game, Pushcart Coffee has a pair of state-of-the-art cafes in Manhattan geared towards a somewhat mature, working creative class audience. They moved operations into the Pfizer building in October 2014, following a roasting incubation stint at Brooklyn's Pulley Collective. Since last year's move, the company's been ready to roast on a fluid-bed, 15-kilo Loring Merlin set up in their space on the building's sixth floor. They've become a fixture in the buzzing food community in the repurposed Big Pharma factory, roasting, baking, and even furnishing an unmanned honor system coffee and pastry cart for the building's many small businesses (and the occasional fashion student—nearby Pratt Institute also occupies a portion of the building).
“We started originally on the Lower East Side,” says Ashley Whelan, Pushcart's general manager and green coffee buyer, over a chat between batches at the roastery (where we're also joined by roaster Adam Strauss). “The name Pushcart doesn't come because we started from a cart, but because back in the day that's how people sold goods on the LES.”
The coffee company's first brick and mortar store was an East Broadway boîte formerly known as Dora. When Dora shuttered, Pushcart moved in, but then, too, picked up stakes from the quiet location. Today, the roaster operates two cafes in Manhattan's twenties: one in Stuyvesant Town and one in Chelsea. Both offer an inclusive selection of food and drink, kids' play areas, Wi-Fi, and in Chelsea, a dedicated slow-brew bar with everything from AeroPress to syphon. The business' focus—besides coffee—is to provide a gathering space for entrepreneurs; head roaster Adam Strauss says this inspired the name for their “Undertaker” espresso blend.
“The word entrepreneur means ‘undertaker' in French,” he tells me, “which I didn't know until I read a Scott McCloud book. So as we are a platform for entrepreneurs, I feel like it's only right to name the blend in essence, entrepreneur, but undertaker's such a more badass name,” says Strauss.
And just as integration within the communities they serve has guided Pushcart's cafes—whether as a working space or a place to mark your kids' height off the wall each year—so too has it guided their connection to their Brooklyn factory enclave of food-makers. The tenant list in the old Pfizer building—now known as 630 Flushing Avenue—reads more like a food truck festival than a building directory. Roberta's Frozen Pizza, Dub Pies, Brooklyn Soda Works, Milk Truck Grilled Cheese, People's Pops, Delaney BBQ, Monsieur Singh's Lassi, and dozens more similar-minded food artisans populate the roster's past and present.
And because the building is relatively isolated from actual great places to go eat food, it's become not only a place for production, but an inward-facing community, with lunch service provided within the building via daily pop-ups like pizzas from Roberta's, chicken sandwiches from Poulet Rôti, “Aloha Fridays” from Red Wagon, and more. In fact, flyers line the elevators and corridors of 630 Flushing like a college dorm room, advertising lunch specials and things for sale from fridges to outgrown baby items, encouraging denizens of the eight-story tower to buy hyper-locally, sourcing their pastries, noodles, kombucha, coffee, and lifestyle goods all steps from their own workspaces while fomenting community.
“The chicken guy can talk, he was talking to me about bone broth forever,” said Whelan.
A few flights below the Pushcart roastery, where the company's baking operations are centered, is Pushcart's least formal cafe in the boroughs—and it really is made of carts this time. Two small baking carts house the 630 Flushing Avenue Pushcart cafe, open to other tenants on the honor system, serving pastries, sandwiches, drip coffee, and cold brew. (And if those don't hit the spot, I might direct you to an honor system beef jerky table not far away.) Oven space is leased out during downtime to other bakers and granola artisans, and occasionally airpots of coffee, in quantity, are furnished to movie shoots. But, Strauss stresses, “We don't [interact here with] too many non-Pfizer related people. In a way, it's an insular community.”
But beyond the thick walls of 630 Flushing—still lined with emergency eye-wash stations and truly beguiling gallery of pastel pink Pfizer lab photos—Pushcart's seeing a steady climb. Not just uphill from the LES, but to countries of origin, moving quickly from an incubating roaster to tagging along on sourcing trips, like a recent adventure to Nicaragua with Café Integral‘s César Vega.
Trips like these, according to an enthusiastic Strauss, are “the height of what an importer can do. Walk the farms, cup the coffees, go to every single stage of the processing. Not just the dry mill, but ride in the back of the truck in the mountains in the rain with green beans,” he says.
Whelan jumps in, excitedly: “And literally get hit in the face with the coffee.”
For now, Pushcart plans to continue its considered growth, stretching all the way from the back of the truck, to the slow bar in Chelsea, to a cart full of pastries and cold brew that cements a community. It may seem like a long distance, but in coffee—it's a straight line.
Liz Clayton is the Associate Editor at Sprudge.com, and our NYC Bureau Chief. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.