Coffee, Tea and A Nice Merlot

It’s hard enough to make it in New York, much less as a coffee house or cafe in a neighborhood where a basic search for “East Village, coffee” brings up 2,130,000 hits in .28 seconds.

So many East Village cafes are trying to get a cup up on the competition by adding alcohol service to their menus.

One could debate the merits of serving alcohol in a neighborhood already overrun by bars. But the recession prompted a spate of cafes to apply for a license to serve beer and wine in an attempt to separate themselves from the competition. (Hair salons and barber shops have also gone that route.) And longtime residents know that the cafe-plus-soft-alcohol model has worked in the East Village for years.

“There is certainly economic motivation to serve alcohol,” said Alex Clark, one of the owners of Ost Cafe. “If you’re running any service you look for the highest kind of profit and the least amount of time that you spend doing it. In the morning you’d go get coffee, in the evening you’d go and have a drink, it serves that function.”

But the recession has worked against them. Customers are staying longer, but ordering fewer items. 
This prompted Ost to try and become more of a day and night spot.

Mr. Clark said the most popular order is still a coffee, with Ost’s basic black at $2 and cheapest red at $8.

Cafe Pick Me Up has served beer and wine since opening 15 years ago, according to one of the owners, Pier Luigi. Due in part to the popularity of its alcoholic options, the cafe underwent renovations and recently unveiled a re-vamped wine bar. 
The increased profits have also allowed the cafe to keep prices stable, despite the downturn.

“Prices haven’t been changed since 2000, even in good ‘pre-recession’ times,” Mr. Luigi said.

Recently, Misko Matovic and Max Ray, both East Village residents, sat at one of Pick Me Up’s sidewalk tables, drinking tiny ceramic cups of espresso. Mr. Ray said the wine on the menu caters to the white-collar crowd, whereas he sees himself as an “old school” neighborhood cafe aficionado.

“That may be the future of the Village, where the past and current are converging,” Mr. Ray said.

Interior of Ost CaféMolly O’Toole Customers at Ost Cafe. Said Alex Clark, one of the cafe’s owners: “There is certainly economic motivation to serve alcohol.”

Inside three women shared a bottle of white wine. 
“I prefer to have both,” said Martha Agneskindquist Olsen, who just moved from Norway to the East Village. “A place to get a glass of wine, just talk, or a cup and just study. It’s a nice combination.”

Ben Liebmann, general manager for Think Coffee said , “the original idea behind Think was that it was going to be a cafe by day and a bar by night.”

Think, like several other East Village cafes, also tries to support community businesses by using local microbreweries and distributors. The popular response has led to the recent expansion of their happy hour.

“Economically, essentially, the more variety that we can have and the more knowledgeable we can be about it, the bigger our clientele can be,” said Mr. Liebmann.

Ninth Street Espresso, on the other hand, a coffee house founded in 2001 by Kenneth Nye, has slowly slimmed its menu to offer fewer options. Mr. Nye has stuck to his strictly coffee business model even when the economy took a turn for the worse.

“These changes are driven by economics,” he said of the decision by his neighbor cafes to shift toward beer and wine. “Over the past few years there has been a bit of a coffee ‘boom’ in NYC and many new shop owners are discovering how hard it is.”

Coffee and Chardonnay

Here are a few East Village coffee houses, including some that also serve alcohol.

View East Village Cafes in a larger map