While some New Yorkers might pretend they don't “see” borough boundaries, it's rarely true. And while some coffee companies in this fair city hop the river, there are a few whose identities seem particularly Brooklynian. One such devil-may-care roaster, Williamsburg-born Variety Coffee Roasters, has long been one of those.
In late spring, Variety opened up its fourth location on the unassuming corner of 25th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. The shop is a stone's throw from the Chelsea Whole Foods, convenient to the Fashion Institute of Technology, and in the middle of chain stores as far as the eye can see. It's a far cry from the shop's original home on Brooklyn's Graham Avenue, where a quiet storefront with an old sign reading “Cho's Variety” was once repurposed to give a casual, scene-anchoring coffee shop its name.
We sat down—mafia style, in a parked car outside Variety's Bushwick roastery on a rainy afternoon—with owner Gavin Compton and Director of Operations Ky Katrensky to get the low down on the growing roaster's latest move.
Sprudge: How many years have you been doing Variety?
Gavin Compton: Oh god, 9 1/4 years. Wowwee zowee. We can say nine.
Sprudge: Who runs things?
Compton: Pssssshh that's a really good question. The patients.
Sprudge: How did the Manhattan location come about? It's very beautiful and perhaps the most “formal” looking Variety shop. Are you all grown up?
Ky Katrensky: Well, we started looking for a new space and looked at like over sixty spaces all around; we didn't have a neighborhood that we were looking in specifically. When we went to that spot, we just fell in love with that corner. It's a weird building and has hilarious landlords and an unbelievably weird community.
It was an old fabric store that was so run down and we gutted it entirely, took out the entire storefront—it was a complete overhaul. It maybe looks more grown-up but the model and the technical side of things is an exact copy of what has worked for us.
Compton: We have the bar to the inch of the Graham Avenue store but with nicer equipment. Not used, not cobbled together with Frankenespresso machines. We did the build-out ourselves like everything else, the tile was custom ordered, the arched ceiling wasn't there before.
Sprudge: How has roasting been going? Have you outgrown yourselves yet?
Compton: We haven't outgrown it yet but we are looking for wholesale facilities that can house roasting and cold coffee production, like everyone else. I don't know if the space is going to be a hybrid of all of those things but more realistically it's going to be a fifth store and at the beginning of next year we could transition into a larger facility.
We don't do avocado toast. We don't do food. We focus on coffee, and that's what we do and have always done and will continue to always do. Maybe the most successful part of the cafe is the people that work there. It's not me doing the work, it's the people that work here doing the work, and they're why it is successful. It's not some magic wand, it's treating employees with respect and you get that back. It's proven to go a long way.
Sprudge: Why the lips on the coffee box?
Compton: Yeah, they're weird. They're there ‘cos they're weird. And I'm sick of everybody putting birds on everything. And if it's not a bird it's a star, and if it's not a star it's…that's all people use, birds and stars. Or a horseshoe. Lips are just fuckin' weird.
Katrensky: I also like them because they're the one thing in between the person enjoying coffee and the experience. They make you feel uncomfortable, we get that from a lot of people. The lips are, in my opinion, no weirder than our name.
Sprudge: Did you say something about cold coffee production?
Compton: We'll begin bottling cold brew this fall—single-origin coffee like all of our coffee. It's roasted lighter than our espresso, it's fucking delicious, it's a coffee that we source specifically for cold brew, it's an expensive coffee…[pauses] that's kind of pretentious.
Cold brew is notoriously crappy coffee, roasted dark, with not a lot of care going into it. It's a good garbage can for leftover green or this that and the other, and for us it's part of what we do. We put just as much care into our cold brew as we do all of our single-origin coffees, because it's a single-origin coffee and that needs to be expressed, it needs to be fruit-forward and it needs to be delicious.
Sprudge: Are there going to be lips on the bottle?
Katrensky: There aren't lips on the bottle. Exactly.
Sprudge: What's it like running a Variety in Manhattan?
Compton: Going to Manhattan has been just as successful, it was done without investment and everything was pretty much the same. We're not paying someone to raise funds for us, and we're not hobnobbing with Wall Street people, it's still DIY and it's cool, and it is possible to open in Manhattan without deep pockets.
Sprudge: You sound like Bernie Sanders.
Compton: I'm from Vermont, whaddya want from me. It's like Field of Dreams.