Let's say you're a world-renowned latte artist and skateboard enthusiast. Why wouldn't you want to extend your personal brand into dark, hip spaces in big cities around the world? It's a no-brainer for Hiroshi Sawada, whose second eponymous cafe in New York City opened in 2019, a second partnership with Hogsalt following a similar collaboration in Chicago inside popular eatery Au Cheval.
And though the coffee experience promises to be elevated, as you make your way down a rare NYC alley in Manhattan's Financial District, dodging trash piles and delivery vehicles that drive on the sidewalk, you may have momentary doubts.
But once you get there, the space itself—within the entrance to NYC's outpost of Au Cheval—is considerably more refined. More so than just about any other specialty coffee shop in New York, Sawada Coffee is moody, dark, and loud. Instead of clichéd pseudo-Scandinavian decor, Sawada opts for artfully hung skate decks (featuring portraits of Sawada himself) and dim lighting to set the tone for a space that offers specialty drinks like the “Military Latte” (matcha, espresso, vanilla, milk and cocoa) or the “Black Camo” (a similar drink that uses hojicha in place of matcha.) It's a small space—really a lobby cafe more than a full coffee shop—with limited seating. And despite the after-dark vibe, Sawada closes each day at 4pm.
“Even though the shop has a great evening vibe, the city that never sleeps still only drinks coffee during the day. In the evening, the counter space is used for Au Cheval guests who are having cocktails,” explains Hogsalt's Senior Executive Beverage Director Jean Tomaro.
“It's a treat to have an extensive coffee program available to Au Cheval guests, especially during brunch services. The aesthetics of the two concepts really play off of each other quite well,” says Tomaro.
If you're more of a peacenik, you may find the menu's military bent a bit strange. Sawada says it's a nod to skate culture, not war, though. “I like skateboards and skatewear,” he says. “Most skateboard brands use camouflage designs, and the Military Latte is our signature drink, designed in a camouflage pattern, combining premium Japanese matcha and homemade vanilla syrup with perfectly dripped espresso.”
And as for your chances of running into the man himself when you visit?
“I visit NYC at least seven times a year—I love the city so much,” says Sawada, who when he's not at the cafe may be frequenting some of his favorite nearby skate and skate-culture-adjacent brand boutiques, like Supreme, Palace, and Labor Skate Shop. “I am always working with the baristas to provide high-quality service and latte art,” he says. (Barista training throughout all of Sawada and Hogsalt is a six-week process, culminating in a timed practical exam.)
Atop the bar—and beneath a giant portrait of Hiroshi Sawada—is a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle espresso machine, and a Hario V60 pour-over bar built into a skateboard. Coffee is provided by Chicago's Metropolis, and teas come from Kilogram, Rishi, as well as hojicha and matcha imported direct from Japan under the name Sawada.
Unfortunately for latte art superfans, these days, you're unlikely to find Sawada himself behind the bar.
“During service, I like to be on the other side of the counter, welcoming and chatting with guests as they receive their coffee,” says the veteran coffee artist, “we like to provide that personal touch.”