When Stumptown opened earlier this month in the Ace Hotel, caffeine snobs of the Lower Midtown/Flatiron District hailed the arrival of quality coffee to their formerly barren climes. But thanks to Birch Coffee, the neighborhood is poised to become something of a cappuccino oasis. Located in the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street, Birch, which is scheduled to open October 24, will offer organic, Rainforest Alliance-certified and bird-friendly coffee and tea, as well as a salad, sandwich, and breakfast menu featuring ingredients sourced from local farms. While plenty of proprietors pay literal lip service to such green ideals, Birch’s owners, Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader, have upped the eco-ante: Birch will be LEED-certified, the first coffee shop in the city to hold such a designation.
Lyman, who’s worked in restaurants “forever,” was originally planning to open a bar. “But one thing led to another, and it ended up being coffee,” he says. He and his partners envisioned opening the shop on the Lower East Side or in the East Village, but their business plan landed in the hands of the Gershwin’s owner, who, Lyman says, “looked at it and said, ‘I want this in my hotel.'” The feeling was mutual: upon seeing the space, which includes an upstairs library with an expansive glass opening that looks out on the back of the hotel, it was, Lyman says, “love at first sight.”
Two years ago, when they began drawing up ideas for Birch, Lyman and Schlader — neither of whom had previously worked in the coffee business — planned to roast their own beans. But a man they met at a coffee convention had other ideas. “He said, ‘you’ll never ever roast in Manhattan; there are so many codes you need to comply with,'” Lyman recalls. Though he didn’t relish being told he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, Lyman exchanged numbers with the man, who owned Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown. Lyman and Schlader worked with him to perfect their own blend.
“We wanted to have a sweet coffee,” Lyman says. “I always used to drink sugar and milk in my coffee, but now I drink it black. Everyone who leaves our doors will learn how to drink black coffee.” In addition to the regular Birch Blend, which is described on the Birch website as having “smoky walnut undertones” and notes of “milk chocolate-dipped cherries,” there are also decaf and Tanzanian Peaberry blends.
Local and organic sourcing also went into the food: Evans Farmhouse Creamery supplies Birch’s dairy, while a network of small farms in New York State and Pennsylvania provides everything from chicken and eggs to herbs and microgreens.
As for the LEED certification, getting it has proven to be easier than Lyman anticipated. “It’s really not so bad. You just need to keep track of every cent that you spend.” Lyman’s designer and architect, who’s also a LEED AP (accredited professional), guided him and Schlader through the process, which in part entailed making sure that 20 percent of their budget was spent on recycled content (some of the bookshelves in the Birch library were made from the Gershwin’s old reception desk), having enough kitchen space for recycling, and prohibiting customers from smoking within 25 feet of the shop. Although they won’t have LEED certification by the time they open, Lyman says that it’s “100 percent” certain.
Lyman and Schlader have been keeping a blog chronicling the four months they’ve spent working on the shop, detailing everything from run-ins with contractors and interviews with prospective hires to their ongoing lack of sleep. “This is first place I’ve ever personally opened,” Lyman says, a note of weariness creeping into his voice. “I know a lot more now than I did four months ago.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 2009