Contrary to their brand name, Caroline Bell and the team at Café Grumpy are well-versed in the art of making New Yorkers smile. Serving up curated coffee made of house-roasted brews since 2005, the Big Apple staple has grown from its original store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to outposts throughout the city, including a popular Garment District location on W39th Street.
Caroline — who founded the cafe with husband Chris — has put special emphasis on keeping the independent feel of the shop, despite its growth over the years. “It’s still just us as the owners,” she said, adding that they’ve “been trying to grow the business organically” from their early days in Greenpoint.
“It was my first business,” said Caroline. “I had worked in restaurants where I made coffee, and of course, had been drinking coffee my whole life,” she laughed, “but it was a learn-as-we-went-along situation. We wanted to open a coffee shop and didn’t really have a business plan – we thought, ‘how hard could it be?’ Turns out it was harder than we thought,” she said.
Despite learning to build the plane as they flew it, within a few years the team at Café Grumpy had made their mark on the New York coffee scene, gaining popularity among locals and visitors alike, some of whom recognized it as a recurring location on the HBO hit Girls.
As they expanded Café Grumpy to downtown and eventually, Midtown, Caroline and Chris were initially unsure what the community reaction would be. “I think everyone from who has started their business in Brooklyn is a little nervous about moving to Midtown, but when we opened we had really good reception,” said Caroline, noting that they soon had Midtown regulars “coming in three times a day” to the historic Art Deco building, a welcome respite from the chaos of 7th Avenue.
Though they had to temporarily shut down the location in the pandemic – “The Fashion District location was our most hard hit – people just weren’t coming in, and Broadway had shut down,” said Caroline, “we’re now seeing old regulars come back in who were happy to see us still here. The vibe is coming back, and we’re hopeful – we love this space.”
While Caroline and her team noticed definitive changes from the ways people consume coffee now versus pre-pandemic, she was curious to find out if New Yorkers’ long-standing reputation for ordering complicated beverages still held true. Tracking the most popular orders across locations, she was surprised to find that most customers liked to keep it simple – drip coffee, cold brew and lattes abounded.
“We do still notice that people are interested in drinks that they can’t make at home,” said Caroline, noting that the café offers seasonal specials like hot cider, pumpkin spice lattes and turmeric matcha lattes “for people to try something new,” when they reviewed their orders “it was interesting to see that hot or cold brewed coffee were the most popular get-through-the-day coffee order,” she added.
Asked about the New York coffee scene’s oat milk takeover, Caroline agreed that over the last few years “plant-based milks have been getting more popular – and oat is definitely the most popular at the moment. They do end up costing us a little more, but we don’t charge extra because we feel like people should decide what they want.”
Building community with customers is vital to Caroline, Chris and the team at Café Grumpy – in addition to hosting local art shows in their cafés, the team also plans panel conversations with coffee producers. “I think it’s important for customers to meet the people who grow the coffee and learn their stories.”
They also encourage baristas interested in participating in national coffee-making competitions — Café Grumpy manager Jinwoo Ahn recently competed in the US Barista Championships. “When customers know baristas are competing, they get excited,” said Caroline. “And we’re always happy to support baristas continuing their education.”
As life returns to Midtown, Caroline is most excited about seeing the area bounce back. “It’s going to be a little different, but I want to see the liveliness come back and people excited to visit again,” she said.
“We’re excited about decorating for different holidays again, and creating a place that people can stop in and take a little break and feel like it’s their special little corner of the city,” said Caroline, adding that what she’s looked forward to the most after reopening is interacting with customers. “Even if you’re just having a tiny little conversation, I think it can be very meaningful,” she added. “If you’re having a bad day or just need someone to say something nice – it really makes a difference.”
Café Grumpy is located at 200 W39th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue.