As Shmilly Gruenstein developed a deep love for coffee, he began frequenting third-wave shops in Soho and Brooklyn, where he learned about different brewing methods and beans. But it puzzled him that none of these shops offered good pastries alongside their drinks. “I get the message of ‘we care only about coffee,’ but I felt that the third-wave coffee market had matured,” he says. “It’s no longer only appreciated…by hardcore coffee connoisseurs. I think the average consumer appreciates it, too.” He began toying with that idea, and eventually began putting together plans for Petite Shell (1269 Lexington Avenue), a café that specializes in rugelach and is as obsessive about its baked goods as it is about its coffee.
Gruenstein comes from a venture capital background, and he began initially contemplating getting into the restaurant or café business after helping a local franchisee of an international chain attempt to structure a deal. “I learned a lot about branding through that process, and I met the corporate team and saw product development,” he says. “It really intrigued me.”
Once he homed in on the idea of offering great coffee alongside great pastries, he drew inspiration from his childhood to flesh out the concept. “I grew up eating rugelach,” he says. “I’m Jewish, and it was a weekend treat for us. Kids would have a cup of milk and some rugelach, and adults would have it with coffee. So it was a natural pastry to offer together with coffee.” That the treat is light, and therefore wouldn’t overpower the coffee, was also appealing to Gruenstein, as was the pastry’s addictive nature.
Once he’d settled on rugelach, Gruenstein enlisted the help of a number of bakers, including Bien Cuit’s Zach Golper, to help him perfect his pastry. After a year, he arrived at his winning recipe, which he describes as a very unique product. “The texture we were going after was flaky on the outside and softer as you reach the center,” he says. “We’ve done something interesting: The flavors are laminated into the dough, so you get the flavor throughout. It hits you right away and continues to hit you. And I was afraid it would dry over time, especially if people took them home, so we rolled more flavor right into the center. When you hit the inside, you get a flavor burst.” Flavors, by the way, include Nutella, white chocolate Granny Smith apple, bleu cheese pear, feta kalamata olives, farmer’s cheese with raspberry, and Barriloche’s dulce de leche.
Petite Shell is also offering five different croissant sandwiches, but that’s it for the food program. “I wanted to keep the concept very simple and very focused,” says the owner.
As for the coffee, Gruenstein says he traversed the country looking for the perfect beans, with stops at local roasteries like Toby’s and national heavyweights like Intelligentsia. He ultimately settled on Forty Weight Coffee Roasters, a small roaster out of Ithaca. “I came across their coffee when they had a small shop in Brooklyn,” he says. “They have obsessive dedication to quality. They’re unique, and very small.”
Drinks are pouring on a Steampunk, a machine Gruenstein fell in love with at a coffee show. “I prefer it to pour-over,” he says. “With pour-over, I feel drinks get cold and take too long. I came across this about three years, and I was enamored with it. It’s aesthetically pleasing, and there’s a lot of theater to the process. The result is spectacular.” Beans will be brewed to order. Gruenstein’s using two methods for iced coffee: Japanese Cold Brew towers, through which coffee drips overnight, and a tap system. And you’ll also find a rather typical menu of espresso drinks on offer.
Petite Shell is in soft opening mode now, and it’s set to open officially on January 14.