The Art of
Coffee and Conversation
Birch Coffee founders Paul Schlader and Jeremy Lyman have perfected the coffee house experience—WiFi (purposely) not included.
It was a cup of naturally processed Ethiopian Sidamo coffee that changed the course of Paul Schlader and Jeremy Lyman’s lives. It’s rich, unique flavours, tasted at a convention in 2008, convinced the duo to ditch their careers and open up a coffee shop.
The longtime friends left behind a string of diverse jobs—including bartending, restaurant management, acting and mortgage processing—to launch Birch Coffee, which has now grown to eight, always-packed locations in New York City. “Coffee sparks creativity, conversation, and artistry. It’s a great connector,” explained Schlader of the widespread draw of coffeehouse culture.
Joe Fresh visited this fresh thinking duo at their Long Island City roasting house, where they hand roast and taste test (cupping, in coffee parlance) all the beans that end up in their signature Birch brews. We got the scoop on the many challenges of running a small business, how they self-funded with the early withdrawal of a bar mitzvah bond and why they eliminated WiFi in all their cafes to encourage true enjoyment of their aromatic cups of joe.
Jeremy Lyman (left) and Paul Schlader at Birch Coffee's Long Island City, New York roasting facility.
Joe Fresh: What is the Birch concept? What makes it unique from all the other coffee shops out there?
Jeremy: Birch is our platform to inspire change with as many people as we can. We try to keep the conversation going and create new ways to keep people talking about the experience and the coffee long after they’ve left the shop. We visit the farms we source our coffee from ourselves. By controlling every step of the process to the best of our abilities, we can provide consistently quality coffee.
We’ve recently eliminated WiFi in all eight of our Birch Coffee shops as a way to encourage customers to enjoy interaction with one another and take a break from their laptop screens and phones. Each of our shops features a library of books from a range of genres and tastes. We encourage the community and our customers to pick up a book and embrace the escapism reading provides. And we have our trademark conversation starters, a.k.a, the Ignition Initiative [which are conversation topics printed on cards], available in all of our shops that people can use if they feel comfortable. It is a really subtle way in which people can let others know they’re open for a conversation.
JF: What is special about Birch coffee itself? What is special about your roasting process?
Paul: Every cup of Birch Coffee that you enjoy is the product of small-batch, manual roasting in Long Island City, by our own hands. Our coffee selections will vary with the seasons, and the harvest timing in different regions, but the integrity with which we roast will always stay the same. We make sure that every batch is held to the same standard of quality.
Jeremy Lyman in Joe Fresh.
JF: How did you get the company off the ground and grow it over the past few years?
Jeremy: I cashed in a premature bond I got from my grandparents for my bar mitzvah and opened an account with that. It was less than $10k, but it was a good start. I also went about $30k into credit card debt and hit up all my family and friends. I think any business can get started for a small amount of money, the key is to simply start somewhere. While money is crucial to the survival of any business, it is the true love and passion for what you do every day that makes you successful.
JF: What have been the biggest challenges of growing your business? How’d you overcome them?
Jeremy: I’d have to say the entire first year was a huge challenge. Our knowledge for running a business was pretty minimal and we basically had to make every mistake in the book. What has been critical for us is that we have learned from every one of those mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read, how much managerial experience you have or think you have, running a business, it’s different when it’s yours.
Paul Schlader in Joe Fresh.
Paul Schlader in Joe Fresh.
JF: What are the most important things for people to know and understand about coffee to enjoy it more?
Paul: Honestly, it’s all about what you like. If you’re able to learn the mechanics of grinding and manual brewing, your home experience will be off the charts. Play! Discover which coffee-growing region speaks to you most and buy as many different types of coffee from that area as you can find. That said, I’m happy to continue to make your coffee for you daily.
JF: What are your personal favourite coffees?
Jeremy: Black drip if it’s below freezing. Otherwise, cold brew with a touch of cream.
Paul: This is like asking me which of my children I love more. I’m usually cupping. [A formal process by which master coffee tasters grade the quality of different types of coffee]. My favorite coffee is the one I’m trying for the first time.
JF: How would each of you describe your style and how does Joe Fresh fit into it?
Jeremy: Kicks, jeans, and a t-shirt. A button-down shirt for a more formal setting. Joe Fresh is perfect for my style. I’m a big fan of lightweight, long sleeve V-necks and they’ve got a great selection of just that.
JF: Location seems like a crucial factor in the success of a coffee shop. How do you choose them?
Jeremy: We’ve worked with the same real estate broker to identify new locations for all of our shops. He has a great understanding of our needs and desires as a business and always keeps an eye out for us. On occasion, a gem will fall into your lap.
JF: The South Bronx seems like an unlikely place for a boutique coffee shop. How and why did you choose that location?
Paul: A big thing for us is providing the community with a new place to meet…and a place to get a great cup of coffee, of course. Sure, we like to enter underserved markets but this one was completely un-served and we knew that needed to change.
Jeremy: Local Bronx real estate developer, Majora Carter, recognized a need for a local coffee shop, spent time researching potential partners, and we met through a mutual friend. It was an instant connection. We believe that anyone who wants to have a great cup of coffee and a nice chat is entitled to it. The shop will also be rolling out coffee education classes, guest speakers, and live music.
JF: Honestly, what do you think of Starbucks and how would you rate their coffee?
Paul: I believe it is safe to say that if it weren’t for Starbucks, the industry would look nothing like it does today. [Starbucks founder] Howard Schultz saw a need for something in this country and ran with it. He not only created one of the most recognized coffee brands in the world but one of the most recognized brands period. Starbucks created the demand for something that was previously almost non-existent and that is why we are able to offer up the amazing supply that we do.