A (not so) Brief History of Sweetleaf

We opened our first shop in 2008 in Long Island City, Queens. Specialty coffee was still in its early stages in NYC and we were the first shop of its kind to open in Queens. Brooklyn or Manhattan would have been a much safer bet but being born and raised in Queens I was thrilled to represent my borough.

That's why I jumped at the chance when my long time friend and old band mate Al Arundel asked me to be partners with him a week after he opened Sweetleaf.

It was a tiny little shop (300 sq. ft.) on the corner of Jackson Ave and 11th St. I'd like to say I saw all the potential it had but what I actually said was "Dude, we're never going to make a living with this little shop on a corner of Queens with no foot traffic".

My vision at the time was to use my contacts (I had owned an international wholesale telecom business for seven years) in Latin America to buy green coffee and then wholesale it in the US.  I started calling them and they were eager to help. As they started asking me detailed questions about what kind of coffee I wanted to buy I realized I didn't know jack crap about the coffee business.

Did I love coffee? Yes. Heck, I was even roasting it for myself at home because it was so hard to find good beans in NYC. But believe it or not, being a decent home roaster does not qualify you to buy tons of green beans in foreign countries. Strange right?

I thought to myself, if I'm going to travel around Latin America  buying green coffee I better learn a little bit about it. So I flew to Vermont and took my first coffee class.  I learned a lot for sure, but mostly that I needed to learn a lot more.

My next flight, Seattle for the 2008 Coffee Fest convention. What an eye opener! What the hell is going on here?! There's not a shop on every block, there are several shops on every block! Why does the dude selling crepes on the corner have an $8000 espresso machine?! These people are clearly out of their minds, I thought. Or were they?

By the time I flew back to NYC I was totally immersed in the third wave coffee scene and knew we needed to make some serious upgrades to our equipment if we wanted to be on the same level as Seattle. We saved every penny we could and upgraded every piece of machinery in the shop. We were on our way!

By 2009 I was obsessed and devouring every article on coffee brewing I could find. Buying green coffee was no longer a thought. The only thing on my mind was brewing the best coffee in NYC.

I frequented specialty shops in NYC and quickly noticed that the biggest problem was inconsistency. I could have a really good espresso shot one day and the next day it be very disappointing. I figured if Sweetleaf could be more consistent we would certainly climb the ranks quickly.

Our solution was to use scales to weigh EVERYTHING we brewed.  We even weighed our espresso grinds before we pulled shots and had scales we used to weigh the espresso as it poured out of the portafilter. This is something I learned from Andy Schecter's contributions on online coffee forums.  He showed why volume measuring of espresso is flawed and cannot be consistent.  One of my proudest coffee moments was having Andy visit one of my shops a couple of years ago and tell me "I've never seen a shop run like this. You run it like a lab, it's incredible." Hearing this from one of my biggest coffee mentors was incredibly humbling.

I cannot speak of consistency without mentioning what a huge impact Vince Fedele's Extract Mojo refractometer has had on our coffee program. A refractometer measures total dissolved solids in your coffee so that you can determine at what percentage you are extracting your coffee. I won't go into detail here but it's a game changer, trust me.  When I met my biggest coffee mentor and now friend Scott Rao back in 2009 I asked him how he felt about the Extract Mojo. His response was "You should buy one today." I did and we became the first shop in NYC to use one. For this I was chastised by my friends in the business. They would come to the shop, see me use it make some smart ass remark and laugh.  I would just smile and laugh on the inside. Within a couple of years they all bought one, every single one of them.  He who laughs last...

In 2010 we rented the storefront next door and expanded the shop. Now having both storefronts we tripled in size. I'll never forget the night we knocked down the wall that divided the spaces. We had 20+ workers including staff work through the night so that we could finish it and not have to close. It was unbelievable!

The original space is now an in house bakery and a lap top room. I love seeing people work on their computers while watching the bakers whip up delicious pastries through a plexi glass wall.

In 2012 we opened our second espresso bar, this one on the corner of Kent Ave and North 6th street in Williamsburg.  It is one block from Smorgasburg and one block from the East River Water Ferry. It has the same concept, amazing coffee and fresh baked goods made in house.

In 2013 we opened our third shop on Center Blvd in Long Island City, surrounded by high-rise buildings with views of Manhattan.  Across the street is the famous Pepsi Cola sign, Gantry State Park, a new city park and the East River Water Ferry. You can actually take the ferry right to our shop in Williamsburg. Pretty cool right?

The shop on Center Blvd is quite different. We are an espresso bar with in house baked goods by day but starting at 6pm we convert to a cocktail bar that serves food. Wanting to keep our standard of excellence we hired Rich Boccato of Dutch Kills as a consultant to design our bar menu and train staff. For our food program we hired LIC resident Chef Dave Martin a finalist on Top Chef as a consultant to design our menu and train staff.

Some news I should share is that half way through 2013 I bought out my partner and dear friend Al Arundel. I will always remember all the great things we did together and all that he meant to Sweetleaf.  It was an amicable departure and we remain close friends.

What lies ahead in 2014? Well, we are in the infancy stages of roasting. At the moment I am roasting at a secret location in Brooklyn. Scott Rao is consulting me and I expect by summer to have the Sweetleaf roastery open. Where? Where else, Queens!