New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History

By Erin Meister, author of New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History



Very early on in the process of researching this book, I realized something rather significant: Writing a history of coffee in New York City is like writing a history of the city itself. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that almost no other single thing—not pizza, not egg creams, not The New York Times—so completely captures the conglomerate that makes “New York City” what it is.


The truth is, I’m a coffee person first: I've worked in specialty coffee for creeping up on 20 years, and I am passionate about almost everything you can imagine about coffee—the flavor, the culture, the supply chain, the industry, the stories we tell, everything. Second, I’m an East Coaster—I was born and raised in New Jersey, and I lived (and worked in coffee) in New York for more than 12 years. New York City is where I “grew up" both personally and professionally, and having been in the service and wholesale industry there so long, I really thought I “got” it, I thought I knew it like the back of my hand.


When Arcadia Publishing asked: “Would you be interested in writing a book about the history of coffee in New York?” I shrugged and—in a very New Yorker way—said, “Pshaw, obviously. I could write that with my eyes closed.”


Then I had my mind blown.


Over the course of a year’s research—reading countless articles, tracking down ancient books, poring over old photographs, and conducting interview after interview—I realized I didn’t know a thing about New York’s coffee history. The personalities I encountered, the nooks and crannies of the green-coffee industry I had no idea existed, the inventions and firsts that happened in the Five Boroughs, the amazing success and failure stories that had been long forgotten—I was amazed by what I learned, and I couldn’t wait to put it down on paper.


In these pages, readers will meet the country’s first female coffee broker, who went on to build a multimillion-dollar coffeehouse empire in the 1920s—but remained a staunch anti-suffragist her whole life. You’ll get to know Chock Full o’Nuts’s charismatic owner, who convinced baseball great Jackie #42 Robinson to join on as a VP after resigning from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Then there’s the story of the man who almost completely decimated the coffee market in 1880—possibly indirectly causing a business associate’s suicide!—only to be unanimously elected the first president of the brand new New York Coffee Exchange two years later, a commodity market that was established to prevent exactly the sort of speculation that made him famous in the first place. And many, many more.


Though I am a coffee nerd and professional, I immediately realized I wasn’t just writing a book about coffee, and that’s what became so personal and perfect about this project. I have always said that “Coffee people are the best people,” and I think it’s true, but my definition of “coffee people” has changed a lot, especially over the past year: “Coffee people” now includes anyone who drinks the stuff, even if they don’t think twice about paper cup they’re holding (so long as there’s caffeine), let alone the farm in Colombia or Mexico or Indonesia that it came from. I wrote this book for that definition of “coffee people,” as well as for anyone who loves or is drawn to or even just a little curious about New York City.


The history of coffee here is a history of a place, of a community, and of a culture. It’s bigger than a venti latte, and it’s more complex than a map of the subway system. Not only do I hope you enjoy this book, but I hope it inspires you to take a stroll around the Empire City, drinking every coffee you can get your hands on. (OK, maybe not every coffee—but there are a lot of good ones to be had out there.)