What made me start to think about the demise of New York coffee shops was the surprise closure of Gene’s Coffee Shop (pictured above), a favorite local institution on East 60th Street between Madison and Park. An eviction sign in the window suggested that the owners were forced out, at least in part, by the rent.
Gene’s, a neighborhood comfort food fixture for decades, found itself in a changing neighborhood. This was graphically illustrated by the towering erection across the street of a gigantic skyscraping finger in the sky. Many of its multi-million dollar (or Bitcoin) apartments are probably owned by mysterious entities concealing the identities of foreign oligarchs.
The bottom line
Classic family owned coffee shops are disappearing from the East Side and the rest of New York City while national and international food-related chains have proliferated. The Center for an Urban Future published the “State of the Chains, 2016,” toting up locations in New York City: Popeye’s, 90; Domino’s Pizza, 79; Dunkin’ Donuts, 596; and Starbuck’s, 317.
And neighborhoods have lost soul and character in the process.
Classic coffee shops are special places. They offer casual, fast and, most often, good quality dining without the drama of more formal sit-down places and without the dehumanizing aspect of a chain joints, every inch planned and replicated across the country. What goes for Akron now goes for New York City.
Why we love our coffee shops
So what makes coffee shops special?
For one thing, coffee shops offer a level of constancy and comfort when much in the City is temporal and aggressive.
New York coffee shops typically look the same as they looked 30 years ago when they opened. The walls, floors, stools, grills, booths, tables are unchanged. The menus are the same and the cakes and donuts (yes, occasionally vintage, as well) are in the same glass domes on the Formica counters facing the stools.
Most importantly are the people working in them…mostly Greeks and Hispanics. Year after year, the same servers are also serving the same jokes, and the same guys are working the grills, somehow keeping all the orders straight. The same guys behind the cash register greet you as you walk in, and the same lineup is sitting on a sill waiting to make deliveries to the surrounding offices. Yes, the first dollar is framed above the register.
coffee shops offer a level of constancy and comfort when much in the City is temporal and aggressive.
No order is too eccentric. And yet, despite the beastly hours and hard work, everybody appears to be in a good mood. Compare and contrast the prevailing tempers in the surrounding offices waiting for BLT’s.
The menus are giant
The size of the menus in coffee shops is remarkable as is the size of the cooking areas out of which all this stuff magically emerges. Pages after pages, often tabbed, list the myriad possibilities. Food somehow happens: “From the Mountains of Rome;” “From the Pools of Greece;” “ From the Islets of Langerhans.”
The best places for people watching
I never tire of people-watching in Manhattan, and coffee shops are a particularly good way to isolate individuals and groups and admittedly eavesdrop on snatches of conversation. My thoughts: What language is that? Can you really be that dumb? Stop talking already and leave him. You may wish to re-think the Make America Great hat. Jobs suck, what can I tell you?
There’s the great line by way of Drew Carey: “There’s a club for people who hate their jobs. They meet in bars. It’s called ‘everybody.’”
Coffee shops democratically attract people from across the social spectrum.
There’s the well-dressed businessman or woman simply looking for something quick and not too fried to eat without any stories.
At the same table he’s occupied at the same time for the last 15 years, there sits an older gentleman in the same well-worn 1950’s blue blazer with the college emblem.
At another table is an older lady who dresses up, pearls and earrings, for her daily tuna sandwich.
To the gentleman and lady this is home cooking.
At one table there are retail sales people talking about things other than retail sales.
At another table are construction workers talking among themselves about union issues.
Thanksgiving at the Silver Star
Another plus to coffee shops is that there is no awkwardness in dining alone. No one cares. This is good.
For years, looking after an ancient parent, I found myself alone on Thanksgiving at the Silver Star on Second Avenue.
In one part of the diner (too big to officially be called a coffee shop) there is a revolving fluorescent-lit carousel of éclairs and cakes behind glass. Next to this is a lobster tank where it looks as if the lobsters are trying to snatch éclairs with their rubber bound claws. The surrounding indifference to my obvious amusement was enabling.
In another part of the Silver Star there is an entire row of individual gentlemen, each at separate small tables, enjoying a complete Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings, including, evidently, a complementary glass of rosé. They seemed perfectly happy with the situation. No one seemed remotely depressed missing what never is a Norman Rockwell family Thanksgiving. Welcome to New York.
Coffee shop economics
The economics of doing what coffee shops do at a reasonable cost is daunting for any number of reasons, including taxes, regulatory compliance, and, in New York especially, rents. This is in addition to the myriad of other things that can go wrong in any restaurant business.
Per Andrew Rigie of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, in addition to other challenges: “…many restaurateurs just aren’t in the position to renew their lease for twice the amount they are currently paying. There is only so much customers will pay for a burger [or] bowl of pasta.”
Food writer Andea Strong summed things up by describing the situation as at a “tipping point.” Specifically: “We risk losing “the texture and beauty of the city’s brilliant restaurant fabric to a big box blanket of TD Banks, Duane Reades and Bareburgers.”
many restaurateurs just aren’t in the position to renew their lease for twice the amount they are currently paying
To which I would add the loss of places like Gene’s, which make neighborhoods… neighborhoods.
There was a story a few years ago in the paper about a Texas college basketball coach in town for a tournament at the Garden. He commented that he’d like to meet the chicken that laid the $30 egg.
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