I have walked by Empire Coffee and Tea on Ninth avenue between 41st and 42nd numerous times without noticing. Perhaps I haven't noticed because I generally try to block the area around Port Authority from my consciousness. Perhaps I put on my blinders for those few blocks so no bums bother me or offer to take me back to carry me over the threshold of their cardboard box (true story). Nevertheless, Empire is worth braving the homeless if you are in the market for some good coffee or tea. The shop is a-dorable . . . once you get inside.
I went in on a Saturday morning after teaching a class to grab what I thought was a quick cup of joe. I was p leasantlysurprised. Lined up along every inch of floor and wall space were bags and bags of different whole bean coffees. Each looked like it had just been roasted and put in a burlap sack for me to scoop out. I perused the varieties. Every possible flavor of coffee was represented and priced with a small handwritten sign on a stake stuck between the mounds of beans. There were some I'd never even imagined. Blueberry cheesecake coffee? Amaretto, egg nog, Vermont Maple Walnut, two different kinds of authentic Kona coffee, and countless others were lined up for me to smell and crave. I spotted Victor's favorite, Jamaican Blue Mountain (I love you, Mr. Snuggles, but I'm not paying $45 per pound) and I strolled to the back. The back section of the shop was lined in loose leaf teas in plastic containers with neon post-its on the front. Apricot, chai, and darjeeling tempted me from the shelves. I suddenly felt a little uncomfortable in the shop. I looked around. A relaxed looking young woman sat with her dog on a ledge and was chatting with the two employees of the shop and an older man sat sipping his coffee on a wrought iron bench at the front. I realized I felt like I was in someone's living room. I decided to purchase some coconut coffee and apricot tea to feel a little more at home.
While they were grinding my coconut coffee (for french press) the apparent shop manager seemed to sense my discomfort and inquired about my day. I decided to actually tell him. Blog and all. He perked up, offered me a taste of one of the coffees they were brewing (a REALLY strong nutty coffee), and we proceeded to chat and bond over paintball stories. He also told me that Empire Coffee and Tea has been around since 1908 and that the owners (Abbe and Paul according to the website) roast their own flavored coffee in upstate New York . . . weekly. Wow, I thought. Impressive. "What about the tea", I asked (after I was so excited about my coffee that I forgot to actually pay for it). "Yeah, we infuse it here", shrugged the manager, "Well, what we don't import from India and places". As if infusing (is that even the right term?) one's own teas were an everyday thing. I looked around. There must have been a back room. A big one. The woman on the ledge with the dog laughed at my surprise.
A group of newcomers wandered into the store as we were chatting and I realized that I had be drawn into the scene. I no longer felt uncomfortable and was actually enjoying a tete a tete over my piping hot coffee. Now, don't get me wrong, some people whisked in and whisked out of the shop very efficiently with their pounds of coffee and tea, but the option to linger and enjoy was also on the table. A very successful and precarious balance between the two had been struck and it made me very happy. I left, excited to enjoy my coconut coffee, and vowed to forego Starbucks whenever possible.