If you’re anything like us, starting the day before a cup of coffee is just not an option. In fact, getting through an average day in life takes at least two or three. We stop for a cup on our morning commute, brew up a pot upon office arrival, then trek out to the neighborhood coffee shop midday for that glorious jolt of afternoon energy. We become thankful, albeit indebted, to those mastermind baristas behind the bar for getting us through yet another workday. So what’s it like to be the brains behind the operation? We got the inside scoop from three coffee shop managers who weighed in on what it’s like to run your friendly neighborhood joint.
Andy Mullins, head of retail for Nobletree Coffee, oversees management for the company’s three locations: Oculus World Trade Center, Dekalb Market Hall, and the Tasting Room at the Nobletree roastery in Red Hook. Prior to overseeing all management, he worked as the general manager at the WTC café. With a 6 a.m. call time for opening shift, Mullins reveals that as soon as he arrives, he does as most of us office-goers do: make that first pot of coffee, which for him, means the company’s batch brew, a coffee from their farm in Brazil.
“Depending on the day, I might pick up our milk, pastry, or paper goods delivery before opening,” Mullins says. “We open the doors at 7:00 a.m. and welcome our first guests. This has always been my favorite part of the day as a barista: The earliest guests might have woken, dressed, and left home in silence, and the order they place might be the first words they say all day. Before the rest of New York City tears them down, we have a chance to build them up.”
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Post-morning rush, he explains that his job looks like what many others’ office jobs might look like; spreadsheets, emails, correspondences with other managers about inventory, and staffing. To my surprise, he lets me in on an unexpected secret: At this point in his day, coffee consumption is swapped out for decaffeinated herbal teas.
Emma Stratigos, manager of Gregory’s Coffee Special Project in NoHo, tells me that she, too, waits until arriving at her store for her morning cup of coffee. By the time she arrives at 7:30 a.m., her two openers have already been here for two hours, prepping for the 6 a.m. opening. She takes a solid 30 minutes before her 8 a.m. start time to organize herself mentally and prepare for the day ahead, including the 8:30 morning rush. After ordering, quality control, and scheduling are complete, it’s all about the tasting.
“There’s lots of tasting; we’re always tasting the coffee and talking about it with the baristas,” Stratigos explains. “Educating is totally part of my role, as well as continuing education. Here [at Gregory’s Special Project], our baristas are more experienced than at other locations. They’ve shown a special interest in continuing their coffee education.”
I spoke with one of said experienced baristas, Jonathan Castrillon, who showed Stratigos an interest in developing his coffee knowledge further. Castrillon, now the store manager at Gregory’s 25th location (880 Third Avenue), told me that he first joined the company in March 2016, taking a total of 15 months before he made it to his title. He was ushered into the role by first taking on a morning assistant manager role at his previous location, then was offered to opportunity to take the reigns at his current store.
“In a sense yes, they [duties from barista to manager] have changed after being promoted,” he says. “But they say you never stop being a barista, and we believe that wholeheartedly. So yes, although my position entails doing some more things and being responsible for more stuff, it doesn’t [compromise] me being a barista first. I love coffee and I’m very passionate about it. It is what drives me to show up to work everyday and serve the best cup of coffee to the community.”
“My favorite part of being a manager is the opportunity to lead,” Castrillon says. “We have to make sure we lead by example in all things we do and cultivate a culture that is thriving, [as well as] the connections we are able to create with the community we serve. Before being a coffee business, we are a people business. It’s a very humbling experience to be able to play a small part in that.” As I sip my coffee while contemplating this answer, I think about the culture that exists around wine, the topic I predominantly focus on, and find myself enlightened to find that person-to- person, community interaction-based culture also exists around my favorite cup of morning fuel.
Though with management comes problems, of course. Mechanical problems and customer issues are a given; the most common theme among managers? Staffing. “Staffing in New York City is a challenge, and a company growing as quickly as ours needs to stay proactive,” Mullins explains. With 26 current Gregory’s Coffee locations, Stratigos also weighs in that staffing is her most reoccurring issue.
And the unanimous best part of it all? The relationship with customers. “As the retail director, I don’t spend as much time in service as I used to, so I always look forward to actually getting to serve guests during our morning rush,” Mullins reveals. As most regular coffee drinkers can attest, our local coffee shop employees become like family. “I love the energy!” Stratigos concurs. “There’s never a dull moment, quite literally. I’m never bored sitting down. I’m always on my feet, talking to people, getting energy from interactions with guests.” Turns out, in the same way we seek energy from our local coffee shop employees, they, too, seek ours.
When asked her opinion on larger corporations, such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, I was actually quite surprised by Stratigos’ answer. “I think they’re important because I credit them for making coffee part of people’s day,” she says. Before them it was mainly people making coffee at home, and now it’s become a part of being out and about in the world. But I also see us as providing a higher-quality product.” And if you’ve tasted Gregory’s coffee before, you’d certainly agree.
Mullins leaves me with a final thought: “I write ‘Do better every day’ on the back of house whiteboard when I get in, or when I leave,” he says. “I’m constantly looking for what we did better today than yesterday. If I can’t find something, I’m not doing my job right.” This resonates with me, and I find myself instantly wanting to do better with each word that flows through my fingers onto this keyboard.
But first, coffee.