Hidden History

The Anthora Coffee Cup: A New York Love Story

A brief history of the Anthora, New York City’s iconic blue-and-white coffee cup, and a writer’s quest to get her hands around one.

The Anthora Coffee Cup: A New York Love Story

The Anthora is an iconic New York City paper coffee cup. Resting in the hands of fictional detectives (NYPD Blue) and on the counters of set restaurants (“Seinfeld”), it is one of New York’s ambassadors. When there’s no yellow cab or Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty, the cup speaks of place. Blue and white with a Greek frieze around the rim, it has a scratchy depiction of an urn and the words “We are happy to serve you” written in ochre along the sides. The little deli cup quietly triggers a recognition of the Big Apple, separating it from the Windy City, the City of Light and other metropolises.

When I moved to New York City two and a half years ago, I wanted to see taxis muscling their way up New York’s clotted thoroughfares, subways packed with commuters avoiding eye contact, coffee carts with bagels and stacks of blue-and-white cups. If, as one friend recently said to me, Manhattan’s architecture defined how it should feel to walk in a city, then that cup defined for me what it meant to live the New York City lifestyle.

A child of the 1980s, it was the “ungovernable” New York that made its way into my heart. Movies from the era — Big, When Harry Met Sally, Ghost Busters, Do the Right Thing — showed a city with defining characteristics. Like South Beach’s neon Art Deco buildings or New Orleans’s beads and gas lamps, New York was a mess of knishes, traffic, street fights, park views, disgruntled cabbies, tough love and high art. I wanted a part of that landscape, and it was only after I’d marked the other items off my list of must-see New York that I began to wonder why I hadn’t been served coffee in an Anthora.

It became an obsession — the kind all my friends knew about, the kind that made acquaintances email me with sightings and text me deli addresses. I started seeing the cups in gutters, flattened between subway tracks, blown up on posters taped to the sides of coffee carts. But I didn’t see one serving its intended function.

One day, unrelated to my hunt for the paper cup, I went to a cafe on the recommendation of a friend. A wedge of a place in the East Village, Abraço, my friend said, made a great coffee. Walking in, instantly, I noticed: on top of the espresso machine, a stack of blue-and-white cups. On the sidewalk, holding my first real New York City coffee, I examined the thing. What I was holding was not an Anthora.

The Anthora’s story starts in 1963, when it was designed by Leslie Buck, an émigré from what is now Ukraine. Buck was a salesman for the Sherri Cup Company in Kensington, Connecticut. The Anthora — a supposed mispronunciation of the word amphora, a Greek or Roman container with two handles — was Buck’s doing. His design was common-sense business savvy: Buck presumably looked around and saw that most diners were owned by Greeks, a byproduct of political shuffling in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which brought them in droves to New York and New Jersey. With their “Entrepreneurial dreams and little capital,” Greek immigrants invested in diners, writes Joel Denker in The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine. Diners that once were a Hopper-esque vision of burnished steel and Deco morphed into the American greasy spoon, complete with Greek statuary and gold leaf. Leslie Buck tapped the vein in the market and produced a wildly popular product. Soon a combination of diners and street carts were stocked with little blue-and-white cups that would become ubiquitous.

As swiftly as the Anthora came, however, it went. The coffee cup with its too expensive blue and white ink was overtaken by the simple white cup or with potable bank advertisements. This seemed to coincide with the thinning of diners in the city, and in 1994, the Sherri Cup company was bought by Solo and the Anthora was subsumed into a product line best known for sponsoring frat parties.

When New York-native Rodger Stevens noticed the change, it was already 1995. Getting on the subway one day, he saw a sea of white coffee cups in riders’ hands. “Not a single one had a Greek amphora, and it scared the pants off me,” Stevens said on “The Citizens Radio Music Show” in 2005. Stevens began saving every New York-branded cup he was given until his collection reached 150. By the time Stevens was on air and his collection was on display at the City Reliquary in Williamsburg, it was only possible to obtain an Anthora by special order from Solo.

In 2011, I put a call in to Solo, hoping to get my hands around an Anthora. By then, I had been stringing together its history online, pestering coffee-drinkers on the streets and staring at trash cans, straining my eyes for flashes of blue. The Solo representative crisply informed me that the cup was no longer in production. The company licensed the design for cup-themed merchandise — change purses at the MoMA gift shop, ceramic mugs from Pearl River Mart — but, the rep explained to me, the company had not made any Anthoras for five years.

“What about the delis that are using them or the company that sells packs of 100?” I asked.

“They must have bought a large quantity at some point — but we are not making them at this time.”

I am a tourist wanting to touch authenticity, I am a disappointed child born too late, I thought.

But of course New York must change by virtue of its very New Yorkness, which is something that Stevens — who has now collected over 200 deli cups — helped me understand. “The coffee culture is changing, for sure,” he wrote in an email. “But really, so is every aspect of the city — the people, the clubs, the subway, the architecture, the neighborhoods — as it always has.”

The rise, lifetime and decline of the Anthora is familiar to few New York coffee-drinkers as knockoffs abound. The original Anthora’s “We are happy to serve you” makes it subtly distinguishable from its replicas sporting similar verbiage — “It’s our pleasure to serve you,” being the most common. The Greek imagery is slightly different on each: a discus thrower, a goddess or (my favorite) a luchador to replace the urn.

It’s the knockoffs that continue the cup’s legacy. They are what now show up in gutters and on movie sets and hip cafes with expensive pour-overs. The New York I was looking for rests somewhere at the intersection of what the city was and what it is becoming. For those hellbent on owning a tangible piece of New York history, on pinning down part of the city that won’t change, we’ll just have to settle for the knowledge that though those artifacts exist, they don’t really matter. New York won’t be contained, not in buildings and not in paper cups.