Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Culture Watch: Is this the end of the line for the NYC (or at least Manhattan) coffee shop?


Because the owner of the Waverly Restaurant, at Sixth Avenue and West 4th Street, owns the building, he doesn't have to deal with an insatiable landlord.

by Ken

Since the New York City coffee shop has been a disappearing institution for several decades, especially in Manhattan, it's hard to believe that it has reached a crisis point, but a rash of recent closings, leaving behind a lot of places hanging on for dear life, suggests that maybe this is the case.

In a sense this is the same story I wrote about Thursday in connection with the tenuous future of Greenwich Village's Caffè Dante ("In breaking news, this 100-year-old café either is or isn't closing -- and there's a "waitress with a big mouth" angle!"), which last year responded to a doubling of its rent by doing a major makeover, trying to become more of a full-service rather than a dessert eatery and to draw a more upscale crowd, without so far showing a lot of durability.

Sometimes we don't adequately consider the impact of rapidly rising fixed costs like real estate on the kinds of businesses you can operate on a particular patch of real estate. For example, I didn't hear a lot of mention of this factor in the fading fortunes of Radio Shack. Once upon a time it was a place you could go for all mannter of electronics parts, and it was invaluable as such.

Since those days it's not just that the demand for such goods has dropped off sharply, although it has, but that you have to sell an awful lot of dollar parts to pay those upwardly spiraling rents. Of course Radio Shack realized this ages ago, and tried to adapt. For a while it seemed to have found a niche of sorts in cell phones, but that market seems to have passed it by.

The same thing is true with food. If your business is dougnuts and you sell them for say a buck a pop, that's an awful lot of doughnuts you have to sell. This is a lesson that Dunkin' Donuts clearly absorbed, and while I'm sure they're happy to continue selling doughnuts, if that's all their customers were buying, they'd be going the way of Radio Shack.

This week's food-business-extinction scare involves a NYC standby, the coffee shop. I always think of the coffee shop" as an urban institution, but I never know about the regionality of these terms, or for that matter of the institution itself. (When I moved to New York at age 12 and was first sent by my mother on an errand to the "candy store," I went looking for a storefront with windows filled with chocolates and other candies. Wrong.) So I guess maybe I better define what I mean by a coffee shop.

No, it's not Starbucks or any of the still-newer breed of ever-more-wildly-overpriced coffee purveyors. It's a homey-type restaurant, usually with a large enough menu to accommodate widely diverse gustatory inclinations, where it's possible to hang out for a while over a cup of coffee and maybe something to munch on, and the whole thing is cheap -- or at least cheaper than the kind of joint we might more formally think of as a "restaurant." By way of illustration, I've dabbled in a number of the "restaurant makeover" shows, and the coffee shop emphatically isn't that. It's the tier below, the kind of place that Gordon Ramsey wouldn't even be caught dead in.

To return to our primitive "price point" model, as rent and other fixed costs soar, it can obviously make a big difference whether you're charging, say, $7.50 or $15 or $30 or $75 (or, God help us, more) for an entrée. And so the sit-down restaurants at the lower end of the spectrum, with prices necessarily rising, have clearly been having a tough time competing with the profusion of fast-food joints.

And that's one of the differences between the story we're about to look at regarding the current wave of coffee-shop closings and the ones that occurred piecemeal over recent decades, not to mention the kind of eatery represented by Caffè Dante. A lot of those businesses didn't so much lack for customers as they lacked for the kind of customer that could support their rapidly rising rents. In this story you'll note, however, that a common theme among the newly endangered establishments is an actual fall-off in business.

The other difference for me -- and this is probably entirely personal -- between this story and the Caffè Dante one is that places like Caffè Dante I've respected but never much patronized, whereas coffee shops once played an important role in my life, if only for the chance to get out of the house and relax while having somebody serve me. (I was always perfectly comfortable sitting at a counter, so as not to waste a seat at a table.) This applied especially to breakfast -- it was a frequent weekend treat, and not all that enormous an indulgence, to take the morning paper into a coffee shop for a nice basic breakfast. But your nice basic breakfast has been especially hard hit by those rising costs faced by local eateries. And over these same decades, as my rising costs have chomped away at my disposable income, I've pretty much stopped eating out, except for occasional takeout from the place across the street from me.

I realize we haven't talked here about the quality of the food. It varies (varied?) a lot from coffee shop to coffee shop, but if you patronized a particular place regularly, you learned the things it did more serviceably. On the whole I would much rather take my chances there than at what now passes for a "fine dining" establishment. From my very occasional experiences of such place, combined with accounts from the few friends whose judgement in such matters I trust, I'm scandalized by the quality of the swill served there. It's no wonder the reinvented restaurant industry depends so heavily on food novelty; their target patrons don't seem to know or care much about the quality of the food they're served.

One last point before we proceed: I think we need to deal with, if not actually resolve, some confusion that seems to have arisen with the term "diner," which I'm getting the feeling has sort of gotten mangled with "coffee shop." Once upon a time "diner" referred to a related but still distinct category of eatery, a place that, even if it wasn't actually located in a converted railroad diner car, had that look and feel. In my mind, though, it's still not the same thing. But it is true that over those same decades when coffee shops have been disappearing from the city, and in particular from Manhattan with its prevailingly higher rents, more places have taken to calling themselves diners.

You'll note that the head on our DNAinfo New York is "Classic Manhattan Diners Fear for Survival After Recent Closures," but the associated slide show is called "Survival of the Manhattan Coffee Shop" and "coffee shop" is the term used in the captions.
Classic Manhattan Diners Fear for Survival After Recent Closures

Jose Torres of the Viand Coffee Shop on Madison Avenue brings out a bowl of chicken soup.

by Rosa Goldensohn

MIDTOWN — Two traditional Manhattan diners, Cafe Edison and La Parisienne, have closed since December, along with the Upper West Side’s Three Star last year. The closures sparked fear that the city diner — the vinyl-boothed institution where regulars can nurse a coffee for hours — is endangered.

Managers and workers at some city standbys that are still hanging on told DNAinfo New York that business had declined over the years, and said they worried that rent hikes would drive them under as well.

“Landlords get greedy,” said Jimmy, the manager of the Applejack Diner on Broadway near West 55th Street, who like many employees interviewed for this story declined to give his last name. He feared that a bank or pharmacy could vie for the diner's spot and get the Applejack evicted. “Try to get a long-term lease before [the rent] goes up,” he advised.

Even better, be your own landlord.

The owner of the 55-year-old Waverly Restaurant on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village also owns the building, according to manager John Captan. Were it not for that, Captan said he doubted the diner would have survived.

“All I hear is that there is no diners in New York City anymore, that’s what people say,” Captan said from behind the cash register at the restaurant. “Less and less diners every year in New York. I think it’s because of the high rent.”

New York diners, where menus are huge and unchanging, are vulnerable “because they cook a lot,” Captan said. At the Waverly Restaurant, open 24 hours, everything is made in-house, Captan said, from soups to specials.

“We cut the steaks here,” he said.

The Waverly has five cooks on at a time. “Over here, you cannot hire just anyone," Captan said, "and when they know how to do the job, you have to pay them better than basics."

He said chain restaurants have lower payroll costs because many don't cook food from scratch. “All they do is warm it up," he said.

Captan said the restaurant has made some changes to keep up with the times, adding a credit card machine two years ago and accepting Seamless orders online.

But at the Viand on East 61st Street, the staff still only takes cash “and Rolex,” joked manager John. He said business had slowed over the years, but the restaurant was surviving without a major overhaul.

“Maybe that’s the secret,” John said. “Hasn’t changed here. The same. It’s like what they call stopped in time, something like that.”

An espresso machine brought in 20 years ago and the recent addition of soy milk were the only shifts John could recall.

Mary Callahan, a former Upper East Sider visiting Viand from Palm Springs, Calif., said she had been coming to the diner for decades.

“The ice cream is the best,” she said, adding that she used to buy up five chocolate sundaes at a time, then take them home and store them in her freezer. "But the tuna salad’s also good.”

Lynn, a waitress at the Applejack for the past 13 years, also saw few changes over the years.

“Nothing really,” she said. “Same old thing.”


Now DNAinfo New York is asking, "Which City Diners Deserve to Be Local Landmarks? (links onsite):
DNAinfo New York wants your nominations for your favorite local diners — the greasy spoons that you think excel at slinging hash and deserve to be protected so they can remain open.

Three classic city coffee shops shut down so far this winter, and some workers at those still standing say they fear a mass extinction of the classic New York diner. Many fear a rent hike could force them to close.

“All I hear is that there is no diners in New York City anymore, that’s what people say,” said John Captan, manager of the Waverly Restaurant in Greenwich Village. “Less and less diners every year in New York. I think it’s because of the high rent.”

We want to hear from you: Tell us about the diner you think deserves protection either in the comments or by tweeting to @DNAinfo.
I assume they don't mean literally "landmarks," because in the actual landmarking process, almost none of this would be relevant; the primary concern would be the historic and architectural value of the building, though some consideration of its use(s) is germane. Ironically, literal landmarking wouldn't protect the buildings' use as coffee shops -- just the buildings themselves. But I suppose there's no harm in soliciting readers' notions of which such joints deserve our patronage.

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