Q&A: The Chipped Cup’s Karen Cantor and Andrew Ding on the Coffee House Scene in Harlem, Part 1


[See More Interviews: Bitchin’ Kitchen’s Nadia G Eats Vodka Pizza | Runner and Stone’s Peter Endriss on Opening a Bakery in Gowanus]

While eclectic coffee shops where you can meet up with your circle of friends, or people watch, are considered a New York staple, you won’t find many in the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem. On the west side of uptown, many blocks beyond 125th street, dining options mainly consist of grocery supermarkets, Chinese food takeout and fast food chains. Enter the Chipped Cup, a decidedly vintage coffee house that burst into the neighborhood with its bright blue signage and promise of good coffee and “victuals”. So how did a vintage loving, art historian, from Long Island and a classically trained violist from Australia get into the coffee business uptown? We sat down with owners Karen Cantor and Andrew Ding to find out.

When did you guys officially open?

Karen Cantor: We’ve been open for just under two weeks now.

How did the two of you meet?

KC: We met three or four years ago.

Andrew Ding: In this lifetime it’s been three or four years. We’re like kindred spirits.

KC: Both of our backgrounds are through the arts. Andrew is a classical violist and I’m an art historian. We were kind of struggling, living in poverty, and trying to be idealistic.

AD: It was so depressing. Before I moved to New York I was living in Dallas and doing a lot of music teaching, which was terrible because when the economy tanked a lot of the orchestras scaled back their performance seasons and there wasn’t a lot of money.

KC: We both found ourselves in Harlem and we fell into real estate doing apartment rentals, which is where we met.

How did you come up with the idea for the Chipped Cup?

KC: We’d always wanted to have our own thing in the neighborhood where we lived.
Originally we were going to call the place Hamilton Coffee because it’s Hamilton Heights, but then we thought, “That’s so boring.” Why is it that everywhere in Harlem is named Harlem something and then the type of place it is? The process for finding a name took a while and we talked with family and friends about ideas. The name Chipped Cup was inspired by some of the art I like, primarily Edward Gorey who’s the author of these sort of macabre adult illustration books. I wanted the same vibe of being cute but not too cute and a little off. Andrew and I were talking about names and he actually was the one who eventually blurted out the Chipped Cup. We threw in coffee and victuals, to the title, so that people knew we weren’t an antique store or something.

What made you choose this location?

AD: We found the space originally because we were trying to find a tenant to lease it but no one wanted to because they didn’t understand the customers up here.

KC: We couldn’t rent it out so we thought we would just rent it out ourselves. Andrew, more than I, saw the potential in the space because it is a challenging location in that it’s subterranean and it’s a long, narrow space.

AD: When we first saw it the floor was sort of soggy and who knew what was under it; it could’ve been a pet cemetery or an Indian burial ground. I’ve always liked the New York speakeasy vibe and in this neighborhood people really like to have their own hideout place.

KC: It’s loud up on Broadway but you come down here and you’re kind of insulated from all of that.

What was the response you got initially when you were trying to rent the space to potential businesses?

AD: No one even responded to the ad. There are currently no businesses for the kind of clientele that we’ve been able to attract. What happens is that people get off the train, they make a beeline for their apartments and they stay there. So when you have prospective businesses coming uptown to look for spaces they don’t see their clientele on the streets because you don’t have people walking around window shopping, sitting on benches or out drinking. It makes it seem that it’s a barren place with only bodegas, check cashing places and fast food, but we understood it because we worked and lived in this area. I used to live on West 149th and it was so frustrating that I had to go downtown to hangout in a coffee shop.

KC: A coffee shop is part of the dream that people have about New York. The dream is “I’m going to move to New York City and write my great novel at a cute coffee shop.” Why no one thought about this for area is beyond me.

What has been the reaction from local residents?

AD: We’ve already seen people on their first dates and neighbors who didn’t realize they were neighbors have met here.

Along with your recent opening another new business, Harlem Public, is opening soon next door to you. Do you think you guys are ushering in a new vibe to this area?

AD: I think so. I think people will start to realize that this is a cool place to come to and they will associate coming to this block with social activity. Hopefully we will be a catalyst for other nice businesses and through whatever buzz we generate people will see that they have their customer base up here.

How about the other business owners in the area?

KC: A lot of the people on the block have come in to introduce themselves. The owner of the law firm next door comes in a lot. Rosa, who owns the nail salon, has been really supportive and they gave us balloons when we first opened. A lot of the people from the neighborhood have stopped in to say they’re excited we’re here. It’s been great.

AD: We’ve done really only grassroots advertising. I basically only put up a Facebook page where I uploaded some of the photos from our progress of getting the space ready leading up to our opening. There was like this whole village mentality and people really started to spread, through word of mouth, the news about our opening. On our first day we had a line of people waiting outside at 7a.m. for us to open.

Part 2 ot the interview runs tomorrow.

The Chipped Cup is located at 3610 Broadway and open Mon- Fri 7a.m. – 7p.m. and Sat-Sun 8a.m.- 7p.m. You can also find them on Facebook.

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