Everyman for Himself

Meet two New Yorkers named Sam with a plan to radically alter your coffeehouse experience.

Everyman for Himself

The menu in the window is the first thing to tip you off. A menu in the window of a coffee shop? Yes, just like in a restaurant.

Open the door. You’re immediately greeted by the smiling face of a barista, eye contact pulling you in like a tractor beam. Inside you’ll find the space modest, a sliver of real estate really. But a clever design makes up for the lack of square footage.

The bar lies low, just below hip level, free-floating and open on all sides. Few barriers, if any, have been erected between barista and customer. As there’s no “pick up” point, there’s no need to wait around after ordering. You can take a seat. Drinks are often walked over and served.

The color palate: warm. No self-serious monochrome, no “design blog” aesthetic, no cheesy bric-a-brac, very few industrial fixtures – the sink came from a Park Slope brownstone kitchen and weighs more than the espresso machine – and no overhead menu board, the result of which (the theory goes) leads to more conversation and exploration while ordering.

In the back, a separate brew bar reserved for drip coffee has the homely feel of a kitchen table. There are three different types of coffee to choose from and two types of espresso: one dark, more traditional – Counter Culture’s Rustico blend – and another more experimental, often much “brighter.” The café charges some of the highest non-hotel/restaurant prices in the city.

Taken piecemeal, we’ve seen these twists before. Taken altogether, this is no ordinary café.

“We want people to walk in and say, ‘Oh! There’s something different about this place,’” says Sam Penix, co-owner of Everyman Espresso’s Soho location, on West Broadway, “because there is something different. It’s not a shitty coffee shop. It’s one of a kind, the highest quality high-volume shop in America, probably the world, and everyone’s eyes are on it right now.”

A twenty-seven-year-old son of a plumber and a waitress from Sarasota, Florida, Penix is a tells-you-like-he-sees-it kind of guy. Together with another Sam — twenty-nine-years-old, sharp as a tack, last name Lewontin — Penix opened the second location of Everyman Espresso (the first is on 13th Street in the East Village). The two Sams collaborated on conceiving the notion, or “thesis,” as Penix calls it, that informs the shop.

And what is this thesis?

“That the café looking like a café as we conceive of it traditionally is not acceptable,” says Lewontin. “That in order for people to treat it differently, it has to look and feel different.”

In a time of great experimentation in the coffee world, two guys named Sam have put forward one of the boldest statements yet.

Sam Lewontin (left) and Sam Penix with a barista at Everyman Coffee in SoHo.
Sam Lewontin (left) and Sam Penix with a barista at Everyman Coffee in SoHo.

“It is a very talked about shop around town,” says Jesse Kahn, a sales manager at Counter Culture, the roaster from which Everyman purchases. Another Counter Culture employee, Katie Carguilo, the 2012 U.S. Barista Champion, concurs.

“There are a couple of things that I think they’re doing differently that actually work,” Carguilo says. “A big thing for me is the offering of two different blends of espresso. The other thing is their hand-brew coffee station. It’s nice that it’s physically separated and I think that they do it well.”

Also, she said, they have a “really, really well-trained staff, and a friendly staff.”

But there are other cafés that have two types of espresso, feature brew bars, and put an emphasis on friendly customer service. So what is it that makes Everyman SoHo unique?

Sam Penix and Sam Lewontin have spent nearly their entire adult lives learning what works and what doesn’t when it comes to cafés. Lewontin’s first coffee gig came at a grocery store kiosk a few blocks away from his parents’ house in Seattle. Later on, he spent three full years making “regrettable coffee,” as he puts it, at a Tully’s franchise as a student at the University of Washington.

Penix, who attended military schools, says he learned by dealing with “abusive bosses who were absolute tyrants”—first for a psychotherapist who “didn’t understand the fundamentals of service,” and later, upon moving to New York in 2007, at Gorilla Coffee in Park Slope, Brooklyn, whose owners had so antagonized their employees that the staff mutinied and quit en masse in 2010. (Penix had already jumped ship by this point.)

Sam Penix prepares a pourover coffee.
Sam Penix prepares a pourover coffee.

By June of 2011, the two Sams had made names for themselves in the city. Lewontin had helped launch a specialty coffee program in the Delta terminal at JFK called World Bean, and Penix had worked his way into an ownership position at Everyman, which was well-known in the local coffee scene.

Penix and Lewontin were familiar with each other from the scene. One day Lewontin happened to be sitting in the 13th Street Everyman.

“Sam (Penix) walked over,” he recalls, “and said, ‘I heard through the grapevine that you’re looking for a job.’”

Penix said he wanted to open up a second café—something different—and that he needed help.

“It was just a gleam in Sam’s eye,” says Lewontin. “We had worked for a lot of cafés, and we’d both been struck by all of the ways in which the model as it currently exists doesn’t jibe with the service or the vibe.”

For all the focus on quality in the New York City coffee scene, and in other U.S. cities, the ordering experience is often run-of-the-mill, at times even herky-jerky – with weird waiting, surly baristas and unwieldy lines. The “model” does not “jibe.”

So the Sams saddled up and set out to break it.

Everyman Espresso is a “specialty” coffee shop. Specialty coffee is just that—special. It’s not the sludge you get a deli or the bubbling black juice that spits out of a Bialetti. It’s not Starbucks. Hell, it’s not even the stuff you might get at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Specialty coffee is about quality and variety. It’s about craftsmanship. It’s about treating coffee as an ingredient with worlds of tasting possibility to explore.

The term itself was coined in 1974, but back then people more or less still viewed coffee as coffee—a simple foodstuff, like white bread or ketchup, served in diners and not much fussed over. Want an espresso? Go to an Italian-American neighborhood. It was an era that has come to be known in the business as the “First Wave” of coffee production.

“Second Wave” coffee, generally speaking, is said to have come about in the 1970s and ’80s. Many associate it with the still-dominant notion of coffee as quick service—what you grab in the morning while dashing to work, usually from a large chain such as Starbucks. Others tend to view it as the beginning of the specialty movement, with roasters like George Howell, a Boston coffee entrepreneur who helped popularize single-origin coffee, and later sold his coffee chain to Starbucks, coming onto the scene and raising the quality bar.

Fast-forward to the late ’90s, and the coming of the “Third Wave.” The groundswell began when companies like Intelligentsia, out of Chicago, and Stumptown from Portland, Oregon, began buying better coffees, developing relationships with farmers and focusing on flavors inherent to specific origins of coffee, looking at each variety as seriously as a winemaker might examine grapes. Around the same time, coffee roasters started implementing training programs, which exponentially increased coffee knowledge and craft within the trade.

In 2007 and 2008, the Third Wave movement went into overdrive. Quality-focused shops proliferated, and NYC in particular experienced a huge influx of roasters and cafés. Meanwhile, barista competitions at the state, regional and national level—even the world level—became more and more popular, and more prestigious.

All of this has had an effect, says Carguilo, the barista champion.

“Nowadays I think there is an expectation of a level of quality for people who open cafés,” she says. “You can’t really open a café and not know what you’re doing—you can’t phone it in.”

Some might roll their eyes. For many Americans, coffee is still coffee, a form of fuel—something you shouldn’t have to wait too long for or think too hard about. But across the country, the specialty scene has achieved a level of pervasiveness, and especially in major American cities, Third Wave culture is increasingly normalized.

Legend has it that Howard Schultz, the billionaire owner of Starbucks, was so inspired by a purchasing trip he took to Milan in the early ’80s, seeing one café after another on street corner after street corner, that he decided it might prove profitable to replicate the experience here. And did it ever.

Espresso machines at the Everyman shop in SoHo.
Espresso machines at the Everyman shop in SoHo.

Contrary to what you may think, many coffee professionals profess that the specialty scene owes a great deal to Starbucks for popularizing espresso-based drinks and raising the standard of quality to a decent—not great, but decent (and consistent)—level. “I think the industry owes a lot to Starbucks,” says Carguilo. “At the time that they began, Starbucks was charging ludicrous prices in terms of what people would pay.”

But the thing about the explosion of Starbucks and its service model, Penix and Lewontin say, is that it stamped into being a notion of what a coffee shop should be.

“All the specialty shops that have opened since Starbucks have used Starbucks’s efficiency model,” says Penix. “You walk up to the front of the counter that’s really high and that cuts off most of the barista’s body, you look up at a menu with a lot of things printed on it, you flock over to the cashier because the cash register is generally the order point, you order, you go to the pick-up point, you pick up your drink, you go over to a condiment bar and stuff it full of Splenda and spill half of it on the counter, you create a sticky nasty mess, and then you leave – and during that time you don’t have much interaction with the barista.”

“If you are Starbucks you absolutely cut to a bare minimum the quality of the ingredients,” says Lewontin. “You get a major industrial milk supplier, you increase consistency by minimizing the requirement for training, and by sourcing larger and larger and larger amounts of beans.”

Small businesses like Everyman couldn’t do that even if they wanted to (they don’t), and over the years, Lewontin says, specialty cafés nibbled away at the edges of the old service model—by banishing menus, for example, by offering coffee brewed by the cup, instead of batch brewing, and focusing on single-origin espressos.

“But in the background,” Lewontin says, “it was still the same service model: we’re going to pay X amount of Y drink at Z price, and that’s how we’re going to make our money.”

And looking at the business model in broad numeric terms, Lewontin says, current pricing for Third Wave shops doesn’t make sense.

“We’re charging the same thing at the end of the day, or something very close to the same thing, as shops that are getting all of their goods for way less money.”

Why? I ask.

“Because there’s this feeling that the market won’t bear it.”

I mention Everyman SoHo’s negative Yelp reviews—few and far between, but almost all relating to price: “I can swallow a $4 iced Americano, but I CANNOT condone a $4 cup of drip coffee.”

“That’s the perception gap at work,” he says. “If you charge more than somebody perceives the product to be worth, they’ll get up in arms. But that’s only because there’s no precedent for value differentiation. None. People feel entitled to the best product at a cut-rate price.”

When Everyman Espresso opened its SoHo shop in July of 2012, one of the first things that stood out was the price of its products, with cappuccinos going for $4.50 and lattes going for $5.

In raising prices at Everyman, the Sams claim they weren’t trying to get away with murder. They say they were trying to solve an existential problem, one that plagues many smaller specialty shops.

“We as an industry can’t afford to support people well enough to stay in the industry long enough to get good enough to create the kind of service we want,” says Lewontin.

Most baristas live off tips. In talking with New York City coffee professionals, I learned that the base wage for an experienced city barista is around $10 per hour. It goes without saying that that’s not enough to live on in a city such as New York. Add tips and you can double your earnings—enough to get by, but you’re hardly thriving. At many cafés, Lewontin says, employee turnover can be as high as one hundred percent annually.

Products on display at Everyman.
Products on display at Everyman.

In dreaming up the Everyman SoHo location, the two Sams wanted to pull off a hat trick. They wanted to do their coffee justice while keeping their customers happy and paying their baristas fairly.

“It’s a tripartite problem,” Lewontin says. “You have to deal with it all at once. You have to change the service in order to charge more, you have to charge more to support people, you have to support people in order to change the service.”

So they started charging more. A lot more, by coffee standards—about fifty to seventy-five cents across the board, as compared to Everyman’s 13th Street location, where pricing is more or less the industry standard. In New York City, a customer usually pays $2.50 for a quality shot of espresso. Recently some shops in the city have started charging $3. Everyman Soho charges $3.50. “We went as far as we could go,” said Lewontin.

And so far the tactic seems to be working. Where it generally takes about one to two years for a coffee shop to achieve profitability, Penix and Lewontin say the Everyman SoHo location is “way ahead of schedule.”

Staff turnover is also much lower, they say—about half of the original SoHo team is still intact, “and many of those departures had nothing to do with the ability to support the staff.”

Additionally, baristas receive better tips at the SoHo location than at 13th Street. “Way better,” Lewontin says, “ticket for ticket, than at our other store—about a dollar to a dollar-fifty per ticket.”

“The percentage here is higher, which is interesting because we have a higher price point,” says Amanda Whitt, a twenty-six-year-old barista who has worked at eleven cafés over the course of her coffee-making career. She helped launch the SoHo location, and claims it is the best shop she’s ever worked at.

“We’re owned by a barista,” she says. “A lot of the time coffee shops are opened by people who think it’s going to be a romantic community experience, or they were in some other industry. But when you work with somebody who very intimately knows what you get paid, and knows your job, not just theoretically, but does your job every day and knows what it is, it just really helps. Basically, long story short, Sam knows where we’re at.”

So the model, it seems, is working. Although, as Lewontin notes, “the real test will come when it’s time to give our staff a raise.”

Whitt works at both Everyman locations and says, “In a lot of ways it’s better coming here,” referring to Soho. “The volume pressure and line pressure is taken away. At 13th Street people come in and line up in one long column, and then you just try to knock out that column. And that does something to the customers when they’re ordering. They’re just ready to get through with their coffee, and I’m ready to give it to them.”

In SoHo, on the other hand, Whitt sometimes feels “like a T.V. chef.”

“You can really tell,” she says, “when people really want you to give that educational experience.”

Still, she says, “there are situations when people come in and they are expecting this unwritten contract, like ‘I walk into coffee shop, they have chai.’ And when they don’t get that, many people come away upset. But there are good experiences I can create with it. For example, with people who are just dead set on having sweet coffee, I can say, ‘Okay, well we don’t have Splenda, but here’s the deal. Our coffee is naturally sweet. I’ll make this for you, and if you decide that it still needs sugar I will walk across the street,” to a Dunkin Donuts, “and get you a Splenda.”

“Sometimes it works,” she says, “sometimes it doesn’t.”

I’m sitting at the brew bar in Everyman SoHo. Sam Penix is a few feet away concocting something—I know not what. Espresso is pulled, some drops are added, an orange is cut, ice scooped, a cocktail shaker shaken, the drink is strained.

He walks back to the brew bar and presents me with a cup.

“Ohh, what is this?”

“Its what we call a shakarato.”

I sip it. It is zippy and cold, with a hint of orange. Slightly bitter. Utterly refreshing.

“Oh, I like that,” I say. “What is going on with that?”

“The glass is spritzed with a ginger syrup,” he tells me. “And then I added some sugar, and a little malic acid.”

“What is that?” I ask.

Sam Penix tastes his freshly brewed coffee.
Sam Penix tastes his freshly brewed coffee.

“It’s the acid that makes apples juicy, so a squirt of that makes it tart. So you shake it over ice, squeeze the orange peel around the glass, drop it in there and serve it.”

Penix and Lewontin are gearing up to offer drinks like this at Everyman SoHo, as well as at their 13th Street location, which they are currently redesigning. Earlier this week they started serving even wackier “tiki coffee drinks” at a summer pop-up café they will be manning at Bikini Bar in Tribeca.

I walked out of the shop, the taste of orange and malic acid lingering in my mouth. Before this, I had dropped in on Everyman as many times as I could when the Sams weren’t around, and each time I did, something interesting happened. Whether it was a barista suggesting a single-origin espresso that had the taste of graham crackers (lo and behold, it did), or another leading me through the ordering process by asking how big I wanted my drink to be (“Do you want something this big? Do you want something that big?”), the experience left me feeling happier, more engaged and better cared for than I have at any other café in the city. The focus on hospitality was readily apparent, but it’s not only the consumer that Everyman is challenging through its service model.

“Everyman is attempting to build a brand both within the coffee community and outside of it as a rule-breaker,” says Joe Coffee’s Matt Banbury, who knows both Sams well.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘We don’t want to do this any more, we’re going to rebel against this business model,’” Banbury says. “But it’s a little bit more challenging when you have to figure out how to pay all of these baristas, and especially in New York City, which is such a traditional consumer culture. I mean, it thinks of itself as being extraordinarily progressive, but ninety percent of people put sugar and milk in their coffee and they don’t even know coffee is a fruit…you have to pick and choose your battles.”

For the time being, Penix and Lewontin have drawn their line in the sand.

“It’s not for everyone,” Penix says. “If you’re looking for a cheap thrill, then this is not your place. But that’s fine. We price things so that we can be outstanding, and if you’re paying anything less than what we’re charging, it’s not sustainable.”

“But you know,” he says. “We don’t have any complaints, because what we make is worth it, and that’s the bottom line.”