In August 2020, a tiny, seafoam-green, electric-powered coffee cart opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, promoting local pastries and bagels and occasional beans. On Wythe Avenue, in the guts of considered one of Latest York City’s most coffee-saturated neighborhoods, one other cute spot to purchase an iced latte wasn’t cause for commotion.
But looming behind that friendly little vehicle, labeled Blank Street, was a stack of market research, enterprise capital and recent technology.
By this summer, Latest Yorkers across boroughs had noticed a recent coffee chain multiplying faster than shark sightings at Rockaway Beach. Not only a cart, the business has appeared in compact storefronts in residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn and near tourist attractions in Manhattan, on Midtown’s busy corners and in SoHo’s shopping drags. In only two years, Blank Street has opened 40 shops in town, greater than any locally owned competitor.
The rapid expansion has piqued the interest of Latest Yorkers, who became especially alert to changes within the streetscape in the course of the pandemic. When word got out that Blank Street isn’t an independent chain like Variety or Bean & Bean, but an enterprise with global ambitions backed by private equity financing, many became curious — and sometimes suspicious.
“It felt like they were following me all around the city,” said Nadia Sokolova, a student pharmacist who goes to highschool in Downtown Brooklyn and have become a Blank Street regular. “Eventually I had to search out out what was happening.”
The coffee was “ok” she said, and the worth was right: A 16-ounce Blank Street iced latte costs $4.25; at Dunkin’, $3.75; and at Starbucks, $5.50.
That curiosity-to-loyalty arc was all a part of the plan for Issam Freiha, 27, and Vinay Menda, 29, Blank Street’s founders, who moved to Latest York for school and got here to the coffee business not from behind the espresso machine, but from the world of tech start-ups.
Acquaintances since highschool on the American School of Dubai, they worked together at a enterprise capital fund in Manhattan while honing the prototype for Blank Street: a micro-cafe that will be cheaper and more welcoming than Starbucks, with higher coffee than Dunkin’ and more ubiquitous than any independent coffee shop or chain.
“We don’t must be essentially the most amazing cup of coffee you’ve ever had,” Mr. Freiha said. “We would like to be the really good cup of coffee that you just drink twice a day, day-after-day.”
But Blank Street’s try and create cutting-edge, streamlined shops with an independent vibe has brought it up against some tenets of the craft-coffee movement: to spotlight the work of the barista and the standard of the beans, and to create spaces to linger in as you appreciate each cup.
Fairly than a spot to meet up with friends or labor at your laptop — a “third place,” as popularized by Starbucks — a Blank Street store is a comfortable pod built around a high-volume automated Eversys espresso system, designed to get customers out and in quickly and to permit baristas to focus more on customer support than on coffee. With incentives to preorder through an app, stores typically run with only two employees per shift. Most Blank Streets are lower than 350 square feet, the dimensions of a smoke shop, a cellphone store or a bare-bones deli.
The pandemic, which wreaked havoc on so many small businesses, freed up storefronts and briefly lowered rent costs, helped Blank Street expand with conspicuous speed during its first yr. “We went where the persons are,” said Mr. Menda, emphasizing that they’ve targeted locations near busy subway stops in residential and industrial neighborhoods.
With that form of backing, Mr. Freiha and Mr. Menda had anticipated rapid growth. They didn’t anticipate that by debuting in Williamsburg and promoting their support for local business, they might invite the form of scrutiny normally reserved for Met Gala outfits and Mets pitchers. Skeptics, who see Blank Street as an avatar of gentrification and automation, and resent the usage of Wall Street money to compete with local businesses, have aired their objections on social media.
“Blank Street is a tech company,” wrote one commenter on TikTok. “They simply Xerox-copy shops on every block of NYC.” Others shrugged. “Do you actually care how your iced coffee is made so long as it’s good?” one other asked. “I don’t.”
Jalen Williams, a product support engineer, stopped going to Blank Street soon after the very first brick-and-mortar shop opened on Bedford Avenue in his neighborhood. “People realized they were just here to ascertain the Williamsburg box,” he said.
Emerging from an Everyman Espresso shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, last month, David Lieber, a customer, lamented what he saw as Blank Street’s targeting of a neighborhood standby.
“They opened right across the road from Everyman,” he said. “That’s not a coincidence.”
In April, after Mr. Menda told the newsletter Air Mail that Blank Street had chosen Williamsburg since the neighborhood didn’t have “many other options,” the pushback increased.
“We were focused on coffee and quality,” Mr. Menda said, conceding that real-world commerce is more complex than it appeared of their marketing strategy. After relationships with local bagel and occasional suppliers faltered, they revised their core message from the grandiose “reinvent local commerce to raised serve our customers and neighborhoods,” to the more basic “great coffee needs to be priced and positioned in a way that makes it a part of your day-after-day.”
Big-money infusions into craft coffee are nothing recent. In 2017, the Chicago-based chain Intelligentsia was bought by Peet’s Coffee; each were later absorbed by a German holding company that went public in 2020, valued at greater than $13 billion. Latest York City’s homegrown Joe Coffee is partly owned by Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality; in 2017, Nestlé acquired a majority stake within the Bay Area-based Blue Bottle Coffee for a reported $425 million.
But a sequence of cafes focused on efficiency, designed by entrepreneurs moderately than experienced baristas or roasters and funded by enterprise capital is fresh to the U.S. market.
Blank Street’s growth plan included hiring top executives from rapidly expanding global chains like Bluestone Lane and Paris Baguette. The corporate, valued at $218 million in line with PitchBook, has already expanded to Boston, in addition to internationally, with five stores in London.
Mr. Freiha and Mr. Menda declined to say how much the Eversys machines, the core of their business model, cost. However the Swiss company’s ShotMaster Pro, which might make 700 espressos per hour, eight at a time, sells for about $50,000 — about what it costs to employ one barista for one yr in Latest York City, where the minimum hourly wage for tipped service staff is $12.50. (Blank Street pays $23 to start out, and says staff earn a median of $28 an hour with suggestions.)
With its reliance on automation, Blank Street clumsily, and unknowingly, stepped into the continuing debate over the definition of excellent coffee, which has raged since 2002 when the California roaster Trish Rothgeb, borrowing from the evolution of feminist movements, coined the term “third-wave coffee.”
First got here the mildly roasted mass-produced diner coffee constituted of low-to-middling-quality beans, which made up most Americans’ every day dose. The second wave crashed within the Seventies, when the identical consumers who bought Cuisinarts and ate at Chez Panisse began embracing premium, dark-roasted beans and European brewing gadgets like Moka pots, Melitta filters and French presses.
Starbucks kicked off the third wave, popularizing espresso drinks and reinventing them for American tastes, paving the best way for the Blue Bottles and La Colombes of the world.
The waves get messy after that. The fourth wave may reflect the technology-driven quest to brew the right drink, or the justice-driven quest to obtain beans that sustain each the planet and the people involved in coffee’s long trip from bean to cup.
In any case, “Blank Street may perhaps be the fifth wave,” said Jeffrey Young, the chief executive of World Coffee Portal, a market research business in London, who says the corporate’s progress is being closely watched by competitors in every single place.
Coffee consumers, he said, can have uninterested in wondering whether their coffee is single-origin, shade-grown, Aero-pressed or poured-over.
“The pioneering has been done, the preciousness is gone,” he said. “If the worldwide industry is able to embrace automation, that might be an enormous shift.”