Spend any amount of time seeking coffee in Manhattan (or recently, downtown Brooklyn or Jersey City) and you've seen a Gregory's. Chances are, you've wondered what sort of coffee shop it is. Is it a big chain? There seem to be so many of them. Is it specialty? They seem to have a custom-built AeroPress bar. Is the guy with the fluffy hair and glasses real? It seems like he's often in the shop, actually. But how can he be everywhere at once? These and many other questions make up the mystique of Gregory's Coffee, one of New York City's most ambitious coffee businesses.
We sat down with the man behind the glasses and native New Yorker, Gregory Zamfotis, for a chat about where his unique style of coffee company—which last week opened its nineteenth shop, on Broadway in lower Manhattan—resides in the busy New York cafe landscape. Sometimes being caught between large and small can actually be the sweet spot.
Sprudge: Where do you see Gregory's as fitting into the specialty coffee spectrum?
Gregory Zamfotis: I'm a New Yorker, I've worked in my father's food and beverage stores my whole life. He had delis, old-fashioned coffee shops, panini sandwich shops, burger places, pizza places—he's like a serial entrepreneur, always doing something new. I grew up working with food, and when I was developing Gregory's as my own, it was like, where do I want to fall?
I felt a really big void in this coffee space in New York, that there were not enough people focused on getting people out the door in a really quick fashion. I go to plenty of coffee shops and have amazing coffee—you can go all over Manhattan, Birch just opened in the Bronx, it's become much more accessible to get really great coffee. For us it was about checking off as many of these boxes as we could without sacrificing the coffee or consistency; it's been a lifelong goal of mine to continue doing that while constantly improving our quality. As a New Yorker and caring about what New Yorkers care about, they care about quality, consistency, really great customer service, not paying too much, and honestly, efficiency.
It seems like you're willing to be more things to more people than some of the other specialty cafes in town.
I never wanted to be perceived as not giving you something. Like if you order a mocha at this place they don't have it, or they don't have syrup. Am I the most proud of my large mocha? Probably not. If a customer really likes it, I'm glad they like it. If a customer were to ask what do I recommend to somebody, I'd probably recommend an AeroPress.
I think in the beginning people saw us as a Starbucks clone, shops in a busy part of the city, nothing to write home about. I don't think anybody directly to my face has ever said something really negative, but I've heard secondhand. Like that because we were in Midtown we were selling out, or being downtown—now everybody's down there, Black Fox, La Colombe, Voyager.
This is a long-winded way of saying I don't really know where we fit, we've always just tried to blend quality and quantity. Guys like G&B have made it cool to be doing just that, to be very busy and be doing large volumes, and talking to them it was validating to hear and be bouncing ideas about systems and organization. That's just something that wasn't in coffee even a year ago; there were much cooler things to be talking about. Now in barista competitions I'm hearing people talking about efficiency and getting people [what] they want as quickly as possible. I couldn't believe it, I've been doing this for 10 years and working on getting our systems locked down and tight.
You stay really involved in the retail aspect of your cafes. How do you maintain quality while growing so rapidly?
I do mystery shop reports and I have a 30-point checklist. A lot of the metrics are timed. The overwhelming majority of experiences, whether it's morning, afternoon or night, is people are getting in and out in under four minutes. Any bar drink or filter coffee, cold brew, that stuff you're in and out in under four, and if it's an AeroPress you're in and out under seven. And that's whether it's 9am and there's 300 people coming in the door or noon where we're a bit slower.
I also don't sell whatever random food concoction that doesn't necessarily go with coffee—we do serve plenty of food products, but my father would always say, aren't you glad you're not in the food business? Food isn't my focus. I'm never going to have an avocado smash that's going to make my mouth drool because I'm really more worried about making my coffee the best it can be. I don't want to worry about whether the toast is good enough or whether I put enough pepper flakes on it. Especially at volume, it makes it very difficult to be good at it. If somebody wants a sandwich there's so many amazing places to get a sandwich, why are they going to come to Gregory's?
How often do you visit different Gregory's shops?
On a typical day, I'm at 5-6 stores a day. In a week I try and hit all of them, but it depends on the week. Sometimes I'll just find myself going to the same stores because I have reason to be at a lot of those.
Last Thursday I did 23,000 steps. I started in Jersey City and I had to be there at 5:30am—I also do all the construction stuff, the leasing, the legal, and I work hand-in-hand with the bookkeeper and accountant and all the real estate stuff. I started at 5:30 and that was finished by 6:30, I usually don't get started til 7:30, but I had an extra hour, so I think I hit 8 stores that day, I was really all over the place. I really really love that more than anything else, being on my feet, seeing my team members. I know everybody in the company's name, since I do the job placements after somebody's been hired based on their needs, I know which stores they should go to, and once I meet them and after I've seen them once or twice I get to shoot the shit with them once I'm in the store.
Tell us about your newest shop on Broadway—you said this is going to be a special store where you experiment?
Our newest shop features a blends menu, single-origin espressos, single-origin espresso-based drinks, and signature drinks based on our rotating list of coffees. We want it to be a bit more fluid and not as fixed. We have a bunch more under construction. Probably another five by the end of the year.
Do you have a growth plan per year? How do you handle staffing with what seems like such rapid expansion?
No, people ask me this all the time, what's your five-year plan? What's your three-year plan? You can ask me my six-month plan, I have a really good idea what I'm doing in the next six months. I like to grow organically—if something good comes along I won't say no, but I like to have the right amount of people and to sustain that growth. I love all my store managers and they work really hard, and it's such an important position to me. But if I were to take on 12 stores right now in the next five months, I don't think I'd have enough store managers at the moment. At the pace we go, I feel like we have the right mix of people to support these stores and operate them in the way I expect.
The other side of the coin is I have a huge pool of people to choose from, and they know that I only promote from within—I've never posted a job posting for anything other than a barista in my life. Everyone has moved up: Bailey Arnold from barista to store manager to Director of Education; Maciej Kasperowicz was a barista, then social media as well, then he was helping with education, and now he's the Director of Coffee. My roaster had no experience, he had worked for Starbucks for a long time. He was a barista, an assistant manager, store manager, then he spent six months building the roaster with Marty Curtis and began roasting.
Beyond growing staff from within, what else can you tell us about your corporate culture?
Nine of my first eleven store managers were female, at the moment I think I have 45 assistant manager positions and 33 of them are women. I don't care what you look like or who you are, if you do a great job you're going to work in this company, but every single person who is in one of those roles started here.
We have in-house throwdowns, book clubs, we do movie nights, I had a cup tasters challenge in each individual store and all the store winners, I took them to Six Flags a couple of weeks ago. I sent some on a cheese crawl, some on a denim crawl, butchers' crawl, a vinyl shop crawl. I was trying to find parallels between some specialty types of industries and what made the experience great or not great, and had the group leader from each of them talk about the experience. One of them ended up buying a record player, one of them ended up a die-hard cheese person.
You started roasting your own coffee at a new facility in Long Island City in the past year, after long relationships with Kobrick's, Dillano's, and Irving Farm. How has that transition been, especially at the volume you need to do?
Man, it's a real bear to open something like that in New York. We didn't have gas, so it took nine months for Con Ed to bring us gas. The size of the afterburners I bought, we needed to reinforce our roof. It was last a parking garage for someone's vintage car collection. We really cleaned out the whole space and tried to make it the best space it could possibly be.
It was definitely a learning experience. It took a long time, I worked with Marty Curtis and bought a Probat UG-22 and a 90-kilo roaster. The 22, I believe, had previously been built out and ready to go for Caffe Vita, he had built this 22 for them but then at the last minute they changed their minds, so once we had all of our facilities in place he was able to get the 22 up really quickly. We've been roasting on that since March. The 90 was a bit more raw when it came in—he found it in some random European nation that he scooped it from and it took a long time to get that thing together and working well, and as of a month ago, the 90 kilo started working for us and changed our lives immediately, being able to drop a 130-pound batch instead of 30 pounds, 30 pounds, 30 pounds.
It's been a long process, it's been a lot of learning, it's been super fun and really interesting now to have our own facility and they know how much leeway I give [our roasters], so yeah, they can spend 3 hours a week trying experimental roasts and doing new things.
Even in a toll roasting experience when you're working with a good partner like Irving Farm, you can't tell them, “Can you just spend all this time and burn all these coffees trying all these different things?”
Do you ever set your sights beyond New York State?
Yeah, I mean, I think about other cities sometimes and I've done some research about what's going on and where other specialty coffee people are going, where there's a need. I'm just in that weird space where I'm getting so many amazing things in NY, unless it's really in my bones that I need to be in another city, I'll probably just be here until I get to the point where I'm not finding so much good stuff. If I'm finding 10 great leases a year in NY, it doesn't really seem wise for me to then go do something else too, when in my plans I feel like I could handle amazing growth in the city that I already feel very comfortable in and I have a network and a system and my commissary and my trucks are here. Jersey City is another city, another state, but…it's an annex of New York.
I would never open one store in Chicago, I would never open two stores in Miami. I'd go to Philly and open five stores, otherwise it doesn't make a lot of sense. It goes into the way I would need it to run to still be able to call it a Gregory's. I have thought about it, I've spent some time running through how it would work, but while I'm blinking I'm getting new emails constantly about new spaces in New York, landlords do really like us as a tenant. We're willing to pay a bit more in rent than a lot more of my peers, partly because our systems are set up for volume and I can make up for it with 1400, 1500, 1600 tickets a day. I'm not competing for the side street less expensive location. I'm going for a bit more prime/premium of space, which narrows the field. I've been in competition with Starbucks over spaces—I feel like I've won one of them, and I've lost a few to them as well. Otherwise, it's usually us and non-coffee businesses.
Do you have a favorite real estate “get”?
Just based on a value perspective the 36th Street and 8th Avenue shop was an amazing location that we got at a very reasonable price. And the store was my best opening ever by far. Some of the new stuff coming along, getting the location for the new Broadway shop, it's the kind of location we don't really have—we're not in Soho, we're not in Noho—that was awesome to get something there, but I feel like they're all my babies. If I had 18 of them hanging off the cliff, I don't know who I would choose, there's something special about each one of them, and because I'm so involved in the process for the lease signing, to managing the build-out, to being there the first morning of every store—I'm very invested in the whole process.
Do you think you might ever just chill out a bit on this coffee thing?
I could easily kind of stop and take a break but I have monthly manager meetings where every month it's just a different three-page checklist about what we can do better. I'm just a bit obsessed about making improvements at all times. Complacency or being happy where you are is boring, and it's not a trademark of what I want this company to be about, whether it's improving the sales or improving a large volume of coffee or converting the sale of a large mocha to black coffee.
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge.com, and a staff writer based in New York City. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.