In just two years, Midtown East has become one of the best neighborhoods in the city for specialty coffee — to the point that writing that sentence has actually become redundant — and now its influence is expanding beyond its borders. You can now find great coffee as far north as 62nd Street, thanks to Birch Coffee (134-1/2 East 62nd Street, no phone). Though technically an Upper East location, it’s close enough to cubicle land to qualify as a coffee break destination.
Even smaller than Birch’s West Village cafe, the Midtown/Upper East outpost is slightly off the Lexington Avenue drag. A timely few customers can dwell and relax at the single table rather than just grab and go — especially enticing during warm weather when the frontage opens completely — although the offerings are slimmer than other Birch locations: coffee, pastries, juices, but no prepared foods.
Birch embraces local/sustainable practices and products — no longer a unique selling point, but virtually a requirement in today’s coffee world — however, they take the concept one step further by delivering their cold brew growlers by bicycle. Birch has a number of other signature features, such as its book lending library (every café has one), conversation cards (for those open to talking to strangers), a roast specifically blended for cold brew, and later closing times than most cafes in order to serve local wines and beers in the evening (though not at the 62nd Street location).
With four locations in Manhattan and one summer mornings-only location in Sag Harbor in the restaurant Harlow East (on the pier overlooking the bay), Birch now has one of the larger footprints for a NYC-originated coffee business, and is actively expanding. In 2013, it replaced Irving Farm in the West Village; this year, it relocated its original Flatiron coffee shop out of the Gershwin Hotel down the street, all while opening a café in the underserved Upper West Side. There’s word of further locations plus plans to open a Brooklyn-based office for its own roasting and wholesale operations.
Founders Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader started the old-fashioned way in the fall of 2009, from scratch. By financing with personal credit cards and jumping in without several years, or even several months, of experience in the industry, they learned many lessons the hard way, by apprenticing in every job from dishwasher to bike delivery to eventually roasting and coffee farm sourcing. Originally having no particular aspirations other than to operate one café and “come to work loving what [they] do each day” (both left dissatisfying careers to begin their coffee venture), they have built a brand known for friendly service and a sense of community.
Their story is as much about seizing opportunity and hard work as good luck. Requiring more control over their coffee supply from Tarrytown, Lyman and Schlader finally rewarded the persistence of Red House Roasters from Union City, who were visiting weekly for months to peddle their services. From that location just across the Hudson, Schlader was able to learn and practice over the next two years to the extent that he eventually took over roasting responsibilities. He is also now confident enough in Birch’s coffee sourcing to broaden its options with a Sumatran coffee from Lake Toba (Indonesia is often frowned upon in specialty coffee shops). Birch plans to install a Probat L25 when the Brooklyn shop opens early next year.
We’re expecting continued development from Birch. Soon, you may see it on a street corner near you.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 22, 2014