Independent Coffee Shops are “Mainstream” in Long Island City

It’s Long Island City. It’s the land without Starbucks. It’s the wild west for artisanal and startup coffee shops.

with Aditi Hudli & Navie Narula

Lillian Chen of COFFEED, Beatrix Czagany of Our Coffee Shop, and Shelly Velazquez of Etto Espresso Bar take us through the day in a life of a barista at their respective coffee shop locations in the LIC.

Christopher King from The Wolf of Wall Street is sitting in COFFEED at its first location at Northern Boulevard in Long Island City. He loves this coffee shop since he sees it as a respite from his work at The Empower Group.

“The coffee is good, and the people here are very nice. It’s so relaxing. I come here every day,” said King, 46, “and I love the Brooklyn Grange farm up top.” He works upstairs in a finance firm. He comes to COFFEED in the morning and during lunch breaks.

COFFEED was founded in 2012, and the Northern Boulevard location is where they started. They now have 22 locations across New York City and two locations in Long Island City alone. Their message is about coffee, community, and environment.

Coffee beans in different stages are prominently displayed at COFFEED. “We believe in single origin beans,” said Lilian Chen, Manager of Relations. “Each farm can taste different from season to season. So why would you get them from different places when you end up like Starbucks, where they put all the beans that they have together, and roast them until they are basically burnt, and you can’t even taste the flavor of the beans anymore? So that’s the difference about us, which is a third wave coffee company”. In addition to different sourcing of beans, they also roast their beans in house.

Everybody can boast about their coffee, but COFFEED differentiates itself by focusing on the community and the environment. COFFEED donates up to 10% of its growth revenue to charities and provides benefits such as $1 books to the community with help from other organizations. They also generate compost from their coffee grounds and supply them to rooftop farms of Brooklyn Grange, which in turn has become a source of their food offerings.

The rooftop farm of Brooklyn Grange at Long Island City is right atop of COFFEED. Here, vegetables are grown with the help of coffee grounds compost from COFFEED.

A few blocks away at Our Coffee Shop, Beatrix Czagany from Hungary is trying to engage the community in a different way. “Because the name of Our Coffee Shop, you can open this shop anywhere in the world.It could be yours and mine. It could be my coffee shop. That is the original idea to really bring the people together,” said the founder. Beatrix started the coffee shop hoping to sell authentic Hungarian pastries, but soon found out that she would need to make more things in order to have a sustainable business, as her customer base is so diverse. She tweaked her coffee shop to reflect the diversity: there is a map on the wall, and there is a glass case showing currencies from different countries.

Where are you from? Our Coffee Shop has a map for that question. As Our Coffee Shop is located close to Astoria, their customer base is much more diverse than other coffee shops in Long Island City. “Most of what I sell now are actually Greek and Italian pastries,” said Beatrix, the founder and owner of the shop.

Coming from Europe, Beatrix wanted to preserve some of her memories about coffee shops in Europe. “Back in Europe, coffee shops is where people sit and talk, but here a lot of people just grab coffee and go,” she said. “We will never have WiFi here, because otherwise people would stop talking.”

We will never have WiFi.
“Coffee and Friends: A Perfect Blend.” Despite the small space, Beatrix’s place has seating space for 7 people so that people can have lunch or chat. “In Europe, if you are holding a cup of coffee on the train, people look at you weird, but here it’s normal.” Beatrix is constantly adjusting to the neighborhood.

“People sometimes even leave their keys here,” said Beatrix as she talked about the trust people in the community have in her coffee shop. She said that starting Our Coffee Shop is almost an accident, when she came here two years ago and could not find a single coffee shop. The coffee shop is now doing well, but profits are slim, because people in the area are sensitive to pricing. “Even if you are 50 cents more expensive, people would stop coming,” she said. She remains cautiously optimistic about the future. “There is a new 400-unit apartment building being built over there, and that hopefully means more customers,” she said, “a Starbucks will eventually come. But if you love coffee, you will walk an extra block for that particular taste.”

Beatrix behind the counter at Our Coffee Shop. It is the most hightly-rated coffee shop in the area on Yelp.
As the population of Long Island City is changing, the neighborhood is welcoming more and more coffee shops. Some are doing well and some not so well.

Almost invisible on the streets around Queensboro Plaza station is Triple Shot World Atlas, a small coffee shop that advertises cold brew outside and features bagels inside. While Our Coffee Shop is sweet and homey, Triple Shot World Atlas is funny. Really funny.

There is a wall of bagels inside the coffee shop, and right atop of the bagel wall is a big screen where fun quotes about coffee and pictures of people having fun in the shop is being displayed. Bagels are everywhere, even more prominent than coffee, and that seems to be what the owner is proud of as well.

Coffee and bagels. The combo makes Triple Shot World Atlas work.

Triple Shot World Atlas has some terrific-looking bagels, and they do not come cheap. A plain bagel with cream cheese would cost $2.50, much higher than even Starbucks. “Sometimes people shouldn’t think why food is so expensive. They should think why food is so cheap,” said Andreá Alimonta, owner of the store, “if you think a person gonna stay in the kitchen, use fresh cream cheese, make a fresh bagel, toast it, and give it to you, how much is that?” he elaborated. “Would you do a bagel with cream cheese for $2.20? You know, things are fresh, so they cost; and whatever is not sold, it’s lost, it’s a loss… It’s much easier to have cheap shit, ‘cuz you sell it anyway, and nobody complain about a bagel that is not soft when you paid 99 cents for it.”

Sometimes people shouldn’t think why food is so expensive. They should think why food is so cheap.
“Please do not tap on the glass. It scares the bagels.”

As for coffee? Triple Shot World Atlas has something special here as well. “In large coffee you usually have two shots. We have three.” This is why the coffee shop has “Triple Shot” in its name.

“Coffee that doesn’t suck” is what Triple Shot World Atlas has to say about their coffee.

etto Espresso Bar is located close to the Citi Bank building, a tall, shiny office building in Long Island City that can be seen from very far away. Compared to the other coffee shops, it features a sleek, modern design. Bar-style tables and stools line the walls, and there is a wall outlet at every seat. It looks almost futuristic, especially after they added their new nitro cold brew machinery.

Cold brew seems to be the new craze, but etto Espresso Bar is proud of its espressos as well. They use Ethiopian coffee beans, and makes espresso-based drinks that tastes very different from what Starbucks does.

Coffee is coming out of the grinder. etto Espresso Bar uses coffee beans from Ethiopia, and sells their coffee beans as well.
Coffee grind is tamped before being sent to the espresso machine. It takes patience, and at least from what it seems, some effort. The coffee grind in the basket must be level to ensure some good espresso.
The moment of expectation for coffee addicts: espresso is coming out of the machine.
And now a latte is being made. Just pour in the milk. It seems easy, but the ratio is so hard to get right.
And ice because why not? It’s summer. It’s time for iced latte. Cold brew is big here too.
In this writer’s opinion, the coffee is strong, but not harsh; it is good, and different.

The password for the WiFi at etto Espresso Bar is “dunkindonuts”. “Just competition. Plus I think it’s just funny,” said the barista, Shelly Yorseli, 25. When asked about whether she feels Starbucks to be a threat to the coffee shop, she said, “I don’t think so. I think our coffee tastes way better.”

“Our coffee tastes way better.”
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