It sounds a bit like an urban fairytale: Burnt-out 33-year-old Manhattan talent agent quits his ambitious corporate career, spends seven months subsisting on unemployment checks, considers opening a summer camp or a yoga studio and then, passing an empty storefront on a sunlit Greenwich Village corner, decides to open an artisanal coffee shop.
“There was never a strategy, but it was the ultimate in what seemed like this romantic life. It had to be in the Village, and it was about people coming in and having this community place. I loved coffee. I didn’t know much about it, but it just felt like that would be so fun and exciting,” says Jonathan Rubinstein, founder and CEO of Joe Coffee, which he opened on the corner of Waverly Place and Gay Street in 2003. The brand has since grown into a small empire employing 300 people across 20 New York City cafés, a brand new roastery, and catering, wholesale and online sales businesses.
In 2003, New Yorkers bought their coffee at Starbucks, traditional Italian cafés and bodegas, but what industry observers call the “third wave”—a movement emphasizing the careful sourcing and roasting of coffee beans, and the importance of skilled baristas—was virtually unknown.
“I did a ton of research, and that involved finding the right roaster and learning this now-ubiquitous thing called ‘latte art.’ I’m fairly certain that no one in New York City ever saw a rosette in their coffee until we opened,” says Rubinstein, who traveled to Seattle, Portland and Chicago to see prominent third-wave companies like Blue Bottle, Stumptown and Intelligentsia.
Almost immediately, Rubinstein, who opened Joe with his sister and parents, gained a devoted local following, including the neighborhood’s many actors and writers: Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman were all regulars. Parker’s friend Amy Sedaris sold her homemade cupcakes from a tiny display case. Time Out New York, the Village Voice and New York magazine all named Joe to their “best of” lists.
Seventeen years later, Rubinstein, 50, lanky and boyish with an incongruous head of grey hair, is starting the next chapter of this charmed coffee tale, confronting an interesting question: Can a company born as a scrappy, family-run enterprise retain its authenticity after receiving a multi-million dollar investment from Enlightened Hospitality Investments, a fund affiliated with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group?