Ask and ye shall receive? As if on cue, my request for a Nordic coffee shop to open in New York was answered a month later when Budin (114 Greenpoint Avenue), pronounced “booth-in” (and Icelandic for shop), opened in mid-February. The owners are a motley trio of artists; two are serious Scandinavia-philes, and one is an Icelander.
The shop immediately gained notoriety not for its ambitious, quality-driven concept, but for a $10 specialty drink that is not its standard latte (the averaged price of which is $4.50). Several sensationalist publications suggested that the owners are brazen opportunists gouging customers with record pricing.
That’s not fair, though. The $10 latte is not the most expensive cup of coffee served in New York — that honor belongs to the Blue Bottle Chelsea siphon bar just south of Chelsea Market. And check the brew bar prices at Stumptown on West 8th Street, where certain, limited quantity coffee sources result in consonant pricing.
Second, the markup is not exorbitant. The Nordic beans used in the drink are sold for $25 per pound, which requires a higher priced latte than others in the city. And that’s before you consider the cost of the additions like imported syrup and licorice powder.
That $1.25 street vendor coffee? It’s the most profitable good sold on the street, at roughly 10 times its cost (and street vendors need to turn a profit like that, with the fines and limits on licenses).
Third, what does a Starbucks latte cost in Oslo, where these beans are roasted? According to the Wall Street Journal, $9.83. That’s the highest price in the world, much higher than in Moscow, Tokyo, or other cities where the dollar stretches the least. Budin’s beans for its specialty latte are from Oslo.
The $10 latte is not what I want to talk about, though. Budin is a serious entry into the specialty coffee world of New York. The shop is large, bright, beautiful, and uncluttered. It keeps its counter scrupulously clean, manned by baristas who sought out the owners. What more can you ask from an independent coffee house? I sat down with owners Elliot Rayman and Crystal Pei to hear more.
How did your affinity for Scandinavia develop and how did it turn to coffee as the anchor for you store concept?
Pei: I have a half-Icelandic daughter and I have a house there. We have a third business partner Rut Hermannsdottir who is our design specialist. I met her in Iceland, but she is based in Oslo. I am a film colorist by trade, so I got a film job in Oslo. I’d been living in Scandinavia on and off. I don’t have professional background like Elliot, but I really enjoy coffee, and when I was in Oslo, I discovered a whole different world of specialty coffee culture. I know Elliot from Brooklyn. He used to work at Variety, and we became friends; he is a musician who has toured Scandinavia quite a bit and we had common friends in Iceland. We started talking about coffee and the project slowly morphed from coffee into a little bit more. Last summer we went on a curating trip to five countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. Everyday we had several cuppings booked with different roasters. We slept on friends’ couches and friends of friends’ couches.
Rayman: I played 15 shows during that same time. There was a heavy concentration of roasters in Stockholm. Especially that weekend, because there were a couple pop-up shops open. It was like back in Brooklyn. They all know each other and are very supportive.
Elliot, how did you get your start in coffee?
Rayman: I was living in Western Massachusetts while in my last year of college, and I needed a job and wanted to work at Northampton Coffee. There’s a really strong coffee culture out there. It’s where Scott Rao wrote his books — he had Rao’s (his shop) already, but he wrote his famous book in Northhampton Coffee since he was friends with us. I worked there a couple years before moving to New York and saw that Stumptown was hiring. I became the retailer trainer, and from there, came to [Brooklyn neighborhood coffee shop] Variety. Opening Budin seemed like a great opportunity to take my experiences in the coffee industry to another level.
Can you get Scandinavian roasts in New York?
Pei: This is the first time Scandinavian coffee is being offered on a consistent basis. At some specialty coffee shops, every once in awhile they’ll bring in a Scandinavian roast, though they won’t be limited to that. We, however, will consistently have Wendelboe, Koppi, and Drop. Later, we will have a roster of roasters to offer one extra every once in a while.
You use Scandinavia coffee almost exclusively. What differentiates their roasters from the rest?
Rayman: There are two main factors and they’re kind of a Nordic approach. One is how they source — what kinds of farms they choose and their preferred flavor profile. The second is the roasting style, which is a lot lighter than almost anything done in the U.S. on a consistent basis. Some of the roasters we are focusing on use an especially lighter approach in which you get amazing flavors. It’s hard to roast lightly and get fully developed flavors — that’s what is significant and striking. Really aromatic and different amazing flavors. However, they’re still strong. The lighter roasts have more caffeine as it’s retained. You can make a tea-like cup and still have amazing aromatics and be flavor-forward.
Were there problems shipping from Scandinavia, given that the optimal drink window after the roast date is so short at two to 14 days?
Rayman: Actually, no. People are really reconsidering that window, especially with lighter roasts. Drop and Koppi both have good until dates that are three months out. They roast lighter and nitrogen flush their bags. We were delayed opening the cafe by a month and a half, so we expected to have a ton of coffee sitting around. We needed to have it to dial it all in [and adjust equipment settings]. I was using two-month-old coffee, and it was amazing, and the roasters fully stand by it. It was only when I heard that that I felt this was going to be a viable project. Otherwise there was no possible way we could use coffee like this from overseas. We have to order large quantities to keep the prices lower, and if we had to sell it in less than 14 days, it wouldn’t work.
What compelled you to install a modbar?
Pei: Aesthetically it’s beautiful.
Rayman: There are a couple more to be installed [around the city]. The main reason we wanted it was so we could be three concepts: a café in the morning, a retail store throughout the day, and a bar at night. We are working on our liquor license. You can basically hide the espresso machine and the counter will be a real bar. The modbar’s low profile helps us do that.
Pei: You can talk and face customers over the machine. You can be approachable and we can explain our coffee while serving.
Rayman: The other main thing is the customer can see their shot being pulled. If you’ve never worked as a barista, never been behind the bar, it’s great for the customer to see what is involved. The nuance and effort put into shots, the baristas throwing away a bad shot. Now the customer can see that aspect of it.
You received some notoriety for a $7 — and now $10 — latte that features Norwegian licorice powder. What has been the reaction of customers, particularly those who’ve tried it?
Rayman: It’s been really positive. We have a couple people coming back.
Pei: We sell a lot of Scandinavian goods. It’s from a Danish licorice company. It’s amazing. If you don’t like licorice, you’ll actually like it; if you like licorice, you’ll love it. Elliott came up with this idea to make this concoction.
Rayman: It starts out with Tim Wendelboe’s Finca Tamana espresso. Then we add some black licorice syrup-it’s craft-made from Denmark that’s a secret recipe, add some raw licorice powder, and Battenkill Valley milk.
Pei: It’s amazing how it spiraled into something.
Rayman: I stand by the drink as a great drink. It’s not representative of our entire concept, of course, but I love how it incorporates so much of what we’re doing. We have our daily coffee menu which is very regularly priced, that falls right in the average of specialty coffee prices. We are doing that by using Heart, a domestic roaster, because they roast most similarly to the Nordic guys. Over there, they all talked about it and recommended them. Plus, Yi-Louma, the owner of Heart, is Finnish.
Now that you’ve been open for a bit, what has changed in terms of your near term, and even longer term plans?
Rayman: We would love to still be able to sell beer and wine. We hope to get the license in a couple months. The main thing is to be a neighborhood coffee shop and hang-out space. We both live here.
Pei:We also both don’t want to travel an hour to open a store.
Rayman: We want to get more of the design goods going. Get it online. Get a coffee subscription service going with these three roasters.
Let’s talk about your evening beverage program. Have you seen this trend of coffee shops converting to bars in the evening?
Rayman: It makes a lot of sense we think.
Pei: We’re a concept place. It’s a Nordic experience, a morning to evening experience.
Rayman: It’s common in Scandinavia, especially in Reykjavik. A lot of cafes have really great spaces. The quality of the beverages is whatever, but the space — it makes so much sense to me. Have an afternoon beer and keep it low-key.
Pei: There is a Scandinavian way of using things different ways that are multifunctional with a lot of purposes. It’s a way of life. We want this to be a community space. You can get coffee; you can get design goods. We’re going to get more books and arts. In the evening you can get some drinks and some food.
And what will be the food program?
Pei: We have our really good friends at Torst [another Scandinavian establishment] providing us in-house bread. We just happen to live really close by. Our kids go to the same daycare. Greenpoint is like that — really neighborhood-y and a supportive environment. They come get coffee here and have a work meeting. We’ll go there and have a beer. We also have a personal relationship with them. For now, we’re doing some pastries from Ceci-Cela. We’re in talks with a Finnish chef, so soon we’ll be doing a sapas program — it means tapas in Finnish. We don’t have a full kitchen so it will be prepped somewhere else.
What are your other plans?
Rayman: We want to be a hub for a lot of things, especially coffee and events. We’re going to do education. Tim Wendelboe is coming to host an event next month, making coffee and giving a lecture. I want to do courses such as how to make coffee at home. Do cuppings.
Would you consider opening a second location, depending on the success of the shop?
Rayman: Yes, we definitely would. We could do this same thing again or we could do a furniture store or space. Or a small design goods store or a small coffee kiosk or do all three.