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'Korean Starbucks' May Threaten Small WaHi Cafe, Owner Says

By Nigel Chiwaya | January 22, 2014 10:30am
 Korean coffee giant Caffé Bene is coming to Washington Heights, and an indie coffee shop owner says it will be located right next door to his shop.
Caffe Bene Coming Uptown
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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — An international coffee chain planning to move to Washington Heights has the owner of the neighborhood café next door worried. 

Haitem Weslati, owner of Taszo Espresso Bar at 5 Edward Morgan Place near 157th Street, said a contractor recently visited his space at 9 Edward Morgan Place and told him the South Korean coffee giant Caffé Bene would move in. Weslati, who said he has worked hard to develop Taszo's neighborhood vibe, fears the chain will threaten his livelihood.

"It's going to hurt my business tremendously," Weslati said of Caffé Bene, which he called the "Korean Starbucks."

"We're going to be competing for the same demographics, the same customers," he added.

Caffé Bene, which has more than 1,200 shops worldwide and 71 in the United States, including one in Times Square — lists Washington Heights as a "coming soon" location on its website.

A spokeswoman for the chain confirmed Tuesday that it plans to open a store in Washington Heights, but said the location and the opening date have not been finalized.

Weslati said he asked his landlord, Upper East Side-based Friedland Properties, to sign a non-compete clause before he moved in, but the landlord refused. Calls to the building's landlord were not returned Tuesday.

Weslati opened Taszo last May after noticing a dearth of coffee shops in the area. The café has become a hit with locals and is typically packed with instrument-toting musicians, children scribbling in coloring books and students tapping away on computers. 

Weslati says he visited one of Caffé Bene's locations in Queens, and said the chain's vibe is too similar to his to prevent competition. From the decor with dark wood paneling to the prices, the new shop will vie for the same customer base, he said.

"It's trying to look neighborhoody and behave neighborhoody," Weslati said, adding that Taszo is a break-even operation for him. "The percentage of customers they're going to take is going to make me suffer."