The Backstory: Oren’s Daily Roast
It was 1978. You could buy a Sony Walkman for $200. You could buy a cup of Joe for under a dollar. Oren Bloostein, a young English major fresh from U-PENN graduation, moved into an apartment on 66th street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. He’d been accepted to the managerial training program for Saks Fifth Avenue and was destined for the ladies shoe department. It was the stuff of if-I-can-make-it-here-I’ll-make-it-anywhere dreams: the Upper East Side townhouses, a leadership role in a swanky department store. Yet Oren hated it.
He was fine with managing, but he couldn’t “manage up” or self-promote to his own managers. Even today, interviewing Oren, who has name recognition in the coffee empire of New York City that he’s created over the last 30 years, doesn’t self-promote much. Sure his name is on the stores, but that’s where it ends. Oren’s coffee isn’t about branding as much as it is about quality and the ceremony of buying beans fresh from your local guy. And it started with a bean store in the basement of his apartment building in his first apartment on the upper east side. Only that first store wasn’t his, it was someone else’s place, but it was his muse.
The owner of the basement store worked the shop himself. It had limited hours and sold beans roasted by one of New York’s few remaining roasters in Brooklyn (guys who’d been around for generations, but usually roasted for hotels and restaurants.) The shop was the middleman. Coffee at the time was a pretty low-profit operation, vulnerable to the ups and downs of any commodity. Our daily brew was just coming off of the mid-70s black frost crisis in Brazil bringing prices up from sixty cents to $3 per pound of green (unfrosted) coffee. Oren knew he wanted to start his own bean store, wanted to be a part of a New York where its citizens bought their bread fresh from their local bakery, and their coffee fresh from their local bean guy. A New York before cafe culture, where the peak of luxury was buttering your own bread and brewing your own coffee in your townhouse, stocked by your local artisan shops, where they knew your name and how you liked it.
He sat on his seed idea–or above it–for five years. In the meantime, he decided to get an MBA at Baruch, in order to buy time as much as anything else. While researching for a marketing project about the Swiss Water Decaf process, he saw an add for a Diedrich roaster in a year and half old Beverage Digest magazine. Eureka finally hit. This is what could make his coffee different from others, what would help him surpass the bean pushing he had been witnessing downstairs–he would roast it himself, in the shop. Cut out the middleman. More bakery than drug store… Oren’s Daily Roast was born.
The First Store
In 1986, he opened on 82nd and 1st. The beans were in the front, the roaster in the back (a Gothot with a capacity for 3 kilo and a catalyzer.) During the day, there wasn’t enough gas pressure to generate the heat that he needed to properly roast, so he roasted at night and worked the store during the day. He taught himself through trial and error and his own taste buds. He made custom blends from different single origin coffees in the store. He became a neighborhood favorite. He lived off caffeine and naps until 1990 when he was rushed to the hospital, given 5 units of blood and a diagnosis: severe bleeding ulcers.
It was time for Oren’s to expand.
He hired help, bought a second roaster and by 1992 had expanded to 6 stores and a 2 partnership stores in Grand Central added in 1999. Oren began to establish his own relationships with farmers, making trips to Guatemala and Colombia. He hired a coffee buyer in 2006.
Second Wave Survival
In 1993, Starbucks hit the city and hit it hard. As America moved into the second wave of coffee, moving coffee out of kitchens and break rooms and into coffee shops, the model for how to coffee in New York changed as well. People started going out for coffee, meeting at coffee shops, and Americans watched New Yorkers go to The Central Perk on Friends in primetime television. European coffee shop culture as a place of community had landed and shops opened and closed alongside Starbucks. Oren’s survived because he sold freshly roasted beans, rather than barista-crafted espresso. (Although the shops always had espresso, just not as their main focus.)
The Present and Beyond
Today you’ll find an espresso bar and baked goods in Oren’s, but you’ll also still find the beans at the front of the shop. Oren is still going strong with his 7 shops, but the landscape of New York City coffee has changed once again. The third wave of coffee— lighter roasts, single origins, clean Scandinavian-Brooklyn graphics–has hit New York hard. Your barista exudes cool–their artful tattoos, their rough-hewn jewelry–as they conscientiously tend to your pour-over. Everything is exposed brick, lightly sanded wood, flavor notes and free wifi. In comparison, Oren’s still feels very much a part of that old New York luxury: custom-blends, local roaster, old apothecary jars of beans lining the heavily lacquered shelves. But he also sells espresso and locally made baked goods and most of his business has migrated to the barista bar.
What’s next? He leaves it to his son Andrew to find a new way forward in this ever-changing New York Cityscape of coffee, but unlike other shops the way forward will be built on Oren’s three decades of trial and error and tastebuds.