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7 Things You Didn't Know About Coffee's History in New York City

By Nicole Levy | September 25, 2015 2:57pm
 Celebrate the first-ever New York Coffee Festival this weekend.
Celebrate the first-ever New York Coffee Festival this weekend.
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It's no understatement to say that coffee, for New Yorkers, is the gravitational force that keeps the city intact. Just try and imagine undertaking your morning commute without it.

This weekend, the inaugural New York Coffee Festival celebrates the city's most vital beverage at the 69th Regiment Armory on the Upper East Side, offering coffee lovers, baristas, shop owners and buyers samples, tastings, talks, and workshops. The festival is the first by Allegra Events in the U.S., taking after their London and Amsterdam Coffee Festivals.

"The simple fact is that coffee has been the center of life in New York for a very long time, and New York has been the center of coffee's life in the United States for a very long time," said Donald Schoenholt, 70, a co-founder of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and president of one of the city's oldest coffee roasters, Gillies Coffee Company.

Perhaps the world's most ardent and knowledgeable champion of New York as the gravitational center of America's coffee-sipping lifestyle, Schoenholt had a lot to teach us about the ways in which java has molded New York's history and vice versa.

Here are the top lessons we learned:

1. While all the other American colonies were drinking tea in the mid-1600s, New York preferred a cup of joe — but not for breakfast.

Schoenholt: "Coffee was introduced to the American table in New York. All the other colonies were English; we were Dutch. The English East India Company controlled tea in the world, the Dutch West India company controlled coffee. We were drinking coffee as a beverage that we enjoyed even while ... the other colonies [preferred tea]. The breakfast beverage in all the colonies was beer, and that was because beer was safe. Coffee was very expensive, beer was cheap. Beer could be made domestically, coffee couldn't. Coffee was really a luxury." 

2. New York City, particularly Manhattan, became one of the biggest centers of coffee roasting in America after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. 

"The opening of the Erie Canal ... permitted New York merchants to bring in green [or un-roasted] coffee, produce it in an commercial kind of way, and send it to Buffalo," Schoenholt says.

In 1900, 86 percent of all coffee that entered the U.S. entered through the port of New York.

"From there, it made its way to Chicago and then south to St. Louis and then onto the wagon trains, and farther west it went. So New York became the great roasting center," he added.

Manhattan, in particular, was home to the city's coffee roasting industry "below Canal Street, with the first great coffee centers being along Washington Street." New York's very first coffee roaster, selling wholesale beans to taverns and hotels, opened on Pearl Street in 1793, according to William Uker's historical account, "All About Coffee."

3. When Mr. Coffee, one of the first electric drip coffee makers designed for home use, made its debut in the 1970s, Yankee center fielder Joe DiMaggio was the star of its television ads.

Schoenholt: "Mr. Coffee machine ... that's the first of the modern coffee makers. Who was the spokesman for the Mr. Coffee Machine? Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankee."

According to the Columbia Dispatch, "millions of kids grew up thinking Joe DiMaggio was a famous appliance salesman."

 Donald Schoenholt, 70, a co-founder of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and president of one of the city's oldest coffee roasters, Gillies Coffee Company
Donald Schoenholt, 70, a co-founder of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and president of one of the city's oldest coffee roasters, Gillies Coffee Company
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Donald Schoenholt

4. Starbucks C.E.O. Howard Schultz, the man who came up with the concept of selling Italian-style coffee drinks at a roaster retail outlet, is a born and raised Brooklynite. 

Schoenholt: Schultz "was a New York fellow born in Brooklyn, who had gone out to Seattle and presented himself." (He grew up in the housing projects of Canarsie, Brooklyn.) "He had been a coffee hardware salesman in New York. He worked for a [Swedish] company called Hammerplast. He went out to Seattle, presented himself to [Starbucks co-founder Jerry] Baldwin and said, 'I want a job. I think you've got a great company.' Baldwin hired him, and when he realized after he'd been there a year or two that Schultz had a background of selling coffee hardware, he sent him to Italy on a buying trip [in 1983] ... And when [Schultz] came back, all he could talk about was espresso bars in Italy. He wanted to try selling cups of coffee in the Starbucks store, and finally, Baldwin gave in."

5. When the first Starbucks opened in New York City on the Upper West Side in 1994, it wasn't the only shop in town to sell espresso.

Schoenholt: "There was a place called Philip's. They were on 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, right next door to the back entrance of the Russian Tea Room. There was a small chain called Cooper's [on the Upper West Side.] There was an outfit out of Canada called Timothy's Coffees of the World, which started opening stores."

In 1989, Oren's Daily Roast, still in business in Manhattan, opened its first store, roasting on premises and selling beverages.

"There were a bunch that were here before Starbucks, but when Starbucks came in, they came in with such tremendous force that they just almost wiped everyone else out, except for Oren's Daily Roast."

6. Today, there are roughly 40 coffee roasters in the city. 

Schoenholt: "This is a city that has a greatly diminished industrial base, yet there are 40 different companies roasting coffee in New York ... They're [new ones] turning up ever week ... I try to keep track of them all, because it fascinates me." 

7. New Yorkers drink more coffee than any other Americans

Schoenholt: "New Yorkers consume more coffee per capita that just about any place else in the country, with the possible exception of the United States Navy and Coast Guard, and fire stations, of which New York has more than any other city in the country."

New Yorkers haven't always ordered their coffee from the same joints — over the last two centuries, they've migrated from taverns to small cafés — but their city remains the main source of and inspiration for America's caffeine fix, Schoenholt said: "Everybody else can steal our thunder for 15 minutes at a time in any given decade, but it always comes back to New York." 

Buy a ticket to the New York Coffee Festival, starting at $25, here

(The interview excerpts above have been condensed for clarity.)