Changes Brew with Harlem Third Wave Coffee Shops

Real estate agents working in Upper Manhattan have been opening high-quality coffee shops throughout Harlem.

On a Wednesday evening at Harlem’s Lenox Coffee, customers type away at their laptops while nursing the remaining dregs of their drip coffee. Behind the counter, the beanie-wearing barista pulls shots of espresso, using coffee beans roasted in-house. Nowadays, the boutique café environment with exposed brick walls and reclaimed wood tables may seem like common find in Harlem, but when Lenox Coffee co-founder and current owner Jeffrey Green first opened up the retail establishment in 2011 with Aaron Baird, his former college roommate and a fellow real estate agent, the pair were one of the first in the Central Harlem market offering high-grade third-wave coffee.

“There was another café that had been one or two blocks up but it had failed miserably,” Green said. “It just wasn’t good coffee. There was no point. You might as well have gone to a deli.”

Over the past decade, the initial trickle of third-wave coffeehouses setting up shop in neighborhoods throughout Central and West Harlem has swelled to a stream. Among these boutique café owners are real estate agents like Green, who, in addition to attracting prospective leaseholders and apartment owners to the neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan, keep the neighborhood buzzed with foamy lattes and curated single-origin bean selection. Green, however, is not alone in maintaining a coffee shop side hustle while showing one-bedrooms to new residents. Fellow real estate agents have followed his footsteps in opening these high-quality establishments in Harlem’s various neighborhoods.

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Green didn’t plan to include “coffee shop owner” on his ever-growing list of careers. After spending time performing as an expat trombonist in a number of Scandinavian orchestras, the Long Island native and his wife, self-ascribed “compulsive movers,” moved to Brooklyn. Green reconnected with Baird and began working as a real estate agent for Bohemia Realty Group, a real estate group with a focus on residential rentals and sales in Upper Manhattan. At the time, he described the residential real estate market he was working in as one where “you could survive.”  

But in 2009, an opportunity for a career shakeup arose when a lease ended for a barbershop on 60 West 129th Street in Central Harlem. Although the former musician’s hospitality experience amounted to waiting tables as a student, Green cited his compulsiveness as the main driver for opening the shop with Baird. “I had an itch to open something, to make something,” Green said. “There was no place to sit down and kind of have a little bit of an inspiring atmosphere to get some work done. It was either Starbucks or Subway.”

Although the store didn’t turn a profit for the first two years, his colleagues at Bohemia thought this type of entrepreneurship was a good idea. So much so that less than a year after Baird and Green opened Lenox Coffee, their fellow Bohemia brokers Andrew Ding and Karen Paul opened the Chipped Cup in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood. The owners, familiar with the neighborhood, got lead of an available commercial space with a landlord “looking for reasonable rent,” saw the potential demand for a neighborhood coffee shop like those in the East Village and described the third-wave coffee movement in Harlem as “inevitable.”

Among these boutique café owners are real estate agents like Green, who, in addition to attracting prospective leaseholders and apartment owners to the neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan, keep the neighborhood buzzed with foamy lattes and curated single-origin bean selection.

“As real estate agents, we had our fingers on the pulse of who lives here versus who doesn’t,” Ding said. “We had daily interactions with people who lived and worked here.”

Aaron Gavios, the CEO of Gavios Realty Group, believes the trend of increasing a neighborhood’s value as a self-perpetuating cycle between new residents and coffee shops. “Usually the demographics will change first, then the retailers will come in,” Gavios said. According to the most recent census data, the population throughout Harlem has shifted, with a nearly 400 percent increase in the white population in Central Harlem and a 230 percent increase in Hamilton Heights. Gavios added that many of these newcomers to Upper Manhattan are “young professionals out of college who don’t want to pay Manhattan prices.”

After their first forays into third wave coffee culture, Baird and his Bohemia colleague Paul decided to form their own coffee shop partnership. The Double Dutch, formerly known as the Bearded Lady Espresso, according to a news report by DNAinfo, came about as their first joint venture when a landlord approached the two coffee shop co-owners to take over a lease at 2194 Frederick Douglass Avenue. Paul like Green described herself as being “itchy to do something else.”

“It’s not about the money,” Paul said. “It’s about creating a space, the gestation process, teaching, watching it grow, getting staff, opening it, at least for a coffee shop.”  

Since their first opening in 2013, the pair have continued to open further storefronts, including Filtered Coffees in Manhattan and the Bronx—the latter of which received investment funds from Keith Rubenstein, a real estate developer.

Rebecca Amato, the associate director of the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University, said she “find[s] it hard to believe that real estate agents opening up coffee shops are not somehow taking advantage of the situation,” comparing the process to “insider trading.”

“The way I see these new buildings, you don’t sell or rent them based on the material land value,” Amato said. “You have to add to the value of those places, and the added value comes from those creature comforts.”

Since the coffee shops first opened, the selling price for many of the apartments units in the buildings, as well as the building units themselves, have increased, according to real estate websites like Zillow.com. The apartments in the building unit at 142 Edgecombe, which houses Green’s second coffee shop, Manhattanville (a second outpost opened in Crown Heights in 2015), each initially sold for around $550,000 within three months of appearing on the market. Currently, the website estimates their retail value at around $600,000. Green acknowledged that the coffee shop “may have helped a little bit” when he was trying to sell the apartments, although argued that people are more tempted by a listing that includes lifestyle amenities like gyms.

A previous rental listing for an apartment unit in Lenox Coffee’s building, posted on Zillow.com by Baird, included in the amenities section: “COFFEE SHOP IN THE BUILDING.”

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Matthew Sedacca

Matthew Sedacca is a writer living in Manhattan. In addition to Edible, his worked has appeared in The Atlantic, Saveur, and Eater, among others. He is often the subject of his own capsaicin experiments.