Location: 30 West 8th Street (Between 5th and 6th Ave).
Stumptown Roasters, of Portland, Oregon, has been on my radar for some time now, as one of the “Big Three” of the so-called Third Wave of Coffee. (The other two are Intellegentsia Roasters and Counter Culture Coffee, both of which have staked their own claim in New York and I’ll talk about eventually.) While many smaller espresso bars need to really work to make themselves seen amongst an increasingly crowded market of high-end coffee, these guys are already well-established as a linchpin of the espresso scene not only in New York, but in the country as a whole. With this in mind, I visited Stumptown in hopes of seeing a café that had the ability to really go for broke with regards to their vision for its design, while also maintaining the same soul and enthusiasm that’s generally only seen in much smaller stores. And I was definitely not disappointed.
This has been one of the most photogenic places I’ve been to, with sunlight flooding all over every inch of sharp wood panels juxtaposed against aging brick. It’s clear that these guys know what they’re doing – every last tiny detail, from the careful selection of pastries from extremely high-end yet relatively uncommonly-used local bakeries, to the small gilded letters that wish you good luck underneath every cup, implies a level of experience and competence that is very rarely seen in New York, even amongst the best of the espresso places out there. These guys just get it, and it shows.
It’s always great when a product is able to match the reputation that precedes it, especially in something that can be as small-scale and personal as a well-made shot of espresso. I feel that this is a issue that can arise in small chains that expand too quickly, or cafés that are based in a location where the demand for coffee far exceeds the capacity they are able to reasonably deliver. For stores like the Joe Coffee up by Columbia University or the Irving Farm Roasters in the heart of Grand Central, there’s certainly no shortage of business – and it’s great that there will never be a shortage of customers, but when one has to be constantly churning out drinks because there’s always another five people waiting behind each person who orders, I can only imagine the possibility of burnout and frustration on the barista’s end.
Every last tiny detail implies a level of experience and competence that is very rarely seen.
And when the person making the drink is feeling rushed or necessarily has to put in less investment per drink, that personal touch that made a lot of these places as big as they are will also fade away just a little bit. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having a successful business, I suppose – nobody wants to be sitting in a ghost town of a store every day, but at the same time time, it can be a little stressful to be focusing on just meeting the minimum demands expected of you when you scale up, rather than focusing on each person and delivering the best product you possibly can. I’m sure many espresso owners have pondered the question of this balance when presented with the opportunity to go to the next stage of growth in their businesses. And there’s really no good answer to that question, is there? Is being successful measured by the number of dollars in your till at the end of the day? Is it measured by the number of lives that you meaningfully impact? Either one can be seen as the driving factors for a livelihood, and neither is more or less valid than the other.
Whatever the case, though, I hope that I see more places like Stumptown in the future, as it really feels like they’ve managed to really have their cake and eat it too when it comes to dedication and success. If more places can exist like this without losing their identities, I think everyone will be able to find their own regular place (famous or not) and enjoy their delicious delicious espresso, which, at least in theory, should be what this is all about in the end.