Jonathan Rubinstein: Where to get a great cup of coffee in New York
In New York, the name Joe is synonymous with amazing coffee. While “cups of Joe” have been ordered here for decades, it’s Joe, the first – and for many the best – boutique, customer-centric coffee houses in town, that have become synonymous with a brilliant morning buzz. And yet, it’s a man named Jonathan, not Joe, at the helm of this beloved operation. Jonathan Rubinstein, to be exact.
In the early 2000s, Rubinstein left his high pressure career as a talent agent and decided to take a big leap of faith, rolling out the awnings on his first Joe storefront in 2003. The location: Waverly and Gay Streets in the ritzy West Village. The differentiating factors from other coffee shops, including Starbucks? Unique and exceptional-tasting coffees, an insistence on preparing excellent espresso beverages, and, most importantly, a personal touch. ‘Quality and hospitality have been the keys,’ insists Rubinstein, a doting dad and surprisingly calm fellow (considering all that caffeine). ‘When I decided to do this, I wanted to make sure people would walk out of Joe saying not only that their coffee is beautiful but, “The people who work there are so nice!”’
Approaches like “quality meets friendliness” seem too simple to work, yet they so often reign supreme in the hospitality business. That certainly was the case with Rubinstein’s venture. Back in 2003, when there was one standalone Joe, a moment occurred when he knew he had a hit on his hands. ‘I remember counting customers each hour, every day, and being delighted when we served 20 per hour during those first few weeks,’ he recalls. ‘One day, after being open for about eight weeks, I came up the subway stairs at Sixth Avenue and saw a line of people on the sidewalk. For one surreal moment, I had no idea what was going on. I realised the line was to get inside Joe. It was then that I thought, OK, this works.’
The Joe locations serve upwards of 150 customers per hour these days — artfully prepared lattes and espresso drinks; aromatic, responsibly farmed coffees from the world’s top sources; hand-steeped cold-brews that will put hair on your chest; and high-quality pastries from mom-and-pop purveyors. Pick a Joe, any Joe, and the customers at the counter or guest tables are a cross-section of urban tastemakers who can’t ever go back to mediocre coffee after becoming a Rubinstein devotee. In recent years, Joe has opened its own roasting operation in Red Hook, Brooklyn, not to mention a small storefront that sells high-end espresso prep gear for pro and amateur “latte artists” alike.
Fortune seems to have favoured this bold fellow, who wouldn’t go back to his former agent career for all the tea in China (or, should we say, all the coffee beans in Colombia). ‘I was so unhappy representing actors,’ Rubinstein recalls. ‘It was always about them and their glory. This was a chance to create something special, to drive things the way I thought they should be driven. It’s an experience and a community.’ A community that has added richness and plenty of buzz to the five boroughs, for which we are all grateful.
Written by Andrew Stone