Beyond the Pastry Case: at Birch Coffee

Café Basics

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When attempting to determine what would make our 700-square-foot coffee shop a cut above the rest, the notion of perfectly fried eggs with tomatoes on freshly baked croissants couldn’t have sounded better. That is until you added a variety of homemade grilled cheeses to that. Now why would someone go anywhere else but Birch Coffee? We needed no more convincing.

While our focus was on our coffee program, we were still going to nail this food menu and people were going to be talking about our classic grilled cheese for days on end. And it started out great! We opened our first shop in October 2009 and we offered a full coffee and food menu, had a full front- and back-of-house staff and while business started slow, we saw the potential and believed we knew what would get us there. Sales were growing, projections were being met, and we were getting a better handle on running a business.

Over the following four years, we opened another three stores and built one with an even bigger and more extravagant kitchen. We brought in a consultant to create the most unique menu a coffee shop had ever seen! This neighborhood was in for a treat, we thought. After spending a nice amount of money on this food design, within six months we flipped the menu back completely to mirror that of our original location. Nothing really beats a grilled cheese and a latte for lunch. While it was an expensive lesson to learn, it opened our eyes to the fact that operating a full-time kitchen is no simple undertaking.

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The kitchen at Birch Coffee. (Photos by Cory Eldridge.)

Even back to the smaller menu, the problems continued. As good as I was a making a cappuccino, I couldn’t prepare a salad to save my life. So if the cook called in sick, the kitchen would often be closed for the day. While the coffee program was flourishing, the kitchen and the food program remained stagnant and inconsistent. Finding back-of-house staff seemed to be more difficult and our hearts simply weren’t into doing whatever it took.

We love coffee and we are really good at it. The thought crossed our minds that if we felt this way about coffee, surely there must be someone that feels this way about good food. The hunt was on to find a partner who would be happy to deliver freshly prepared food daily.

Our true search truly began about six months ago. After countless phone calls, meetings, and tastings (definitely not the worst part to the job), we met a local food purveyor looking, Local Thyme, that focuses on healthy and delicious yet incredibly approachable items, which seemed right up our alley. They deliver parfaits, fruits, wraps and salads freshly fresh daily. It completely eliminates the guesswork for us and our baristas. As long as we can read their handwriting on expiration dates, we’re in great shape. It has helped increase our profit margins and eliminated significant waste and unnecessary labor.

So I will leave you with this: do what you love. Connect with others that love what they do. Stay relevant and on top of the competition. Do not fear change, embrace it. If something isn’t working, move on and focus on what is. These are all the recipes to success that you need.

—Jeremy Lyman is the co-founder of Birch Coffee in New York City.