When you first walk in to Monkey Cup 2 in Central Harlem, you notice how everything in the space feels a bit hand-hewn, starting with a large, lacquered wooden counter flanked by wooden stools that juts out into the entry point with a silver La Marzocco espresso machine at one end. Many drop lights with Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling blanketed in ivy. Along one wall climbs a custom-built tree with branches for shelves where customers drop off and pick up books. Walking into Monkey Cup, you know that you are entering a vision dreamed up by some new New Yorker who took up the call to “make it here.” Those New Yorkers with a dream are Venezuelan immigrants, Alfredo and Laura, and they have made it here with the help of many people who believed in their vision, work ethic and love of coffee.
The birth story of Monkey Cup is full of unlikely connections, lucky breaks, curiosity and helping hands.
Laura, before becoming co-owner of the Monkey Cup, worked as a dentist in Venezuela, polishing and excavating cavities as Hugo Chávez’s presidency fueled economic and political unrest in her home country. Alfredo, Laura’s husband and also now co-owner of Monkey Cup, was studying classical music in Miami. Like millions of Americans before them, they decided to sow their vision for a family in America’s soil.
Fast forward three years to New York, 2014: Alfredo was studying classical music at City College and Laura was studying health care management in an attempt to restart her career stateside. Alfredo began drinking A LOT of coffee. He regularly visited a place called Cafe One owned by two New Yorkers, Susan and Sam. In a city of 8 million where it is easy to feel nameless, Susan and Sam knew Alfredo’s name. It was a small welcome mat, but it was all the traction Laura and Alfredo needed. In March 2015, they investigated a small shop on 145th after seeing a “space available” sign in the doorway. It had once been a consignment jewelry store that bought gold and silver by the ounce from neighbors down on their luck.
After only four months, Alfredo and Laura took out a small loan to buy their first La Marzocco espresso machine, found their coffee roaster–Irving Farms– and discovered Alfredo’s unknown passion for carpentry.
Everything in Monkey Cup is hand-built from the pastry display case, to the tables, to the wooden paneling lining the walls. Alfredo entered the project without knowledge of how to build. He learned as he went, visiting home depot and asking around. Laura mentions that people from the neighborhood would even chip in when they walked by and noticed that Laura and Alfredo were making beginner builder mistakes.
For six months, only Laura and Alfredo and Leo, Laura’s brother, worked the shop. Alfredo acknowledges that it was tough but he didn’t mind. “When you have coffee for free, nothing matters,” he said. By January 2016, only 10 months later, they were solvent. They hired a barista who was able to really shape the work flow and the standards of coffee preparation.
Around a year later, the pattern repeated itself. They responded to an ad on a store front for a space, this time in Central Harlem, and six months later they opened Monkey Cup 2. It went a bit more smoothly the second time around. It was a bigger space with room for tables, but Alfredo had learned more of the carpentry trade and they were up for the task.
When interviewing Laura and Alfredo for this post at the front counter of Monkey Cup 2, we were interrupted frequently by customers who they knew by name–a charming demonstration of the hospitality that inspired them. In between these chats they demonstrated a Senegalese method of brewing coffee on the menu called Cafe Touba which a UN ambassador from Senegal in the neighborhood stopped in to teach them. They also introduced me to a representative from 734 Coffee a coffee project that benefits Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. The rep added books to the homemade shelves built into the wall to look like tree branches; Monkey Cup would like to start brewing 734 Coffee alongside Irving Farms in the near future. As Harlem gentrifies Monkey Cup has found ways to lay out a welcome mat wide enough for the entire community illustrated by not only their brew methods but also by their regulars.
Monkey Cup is a real neighborhood treasure. There are two locations: 1730 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10031 & 1965 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, New York, NY 10026.
Check out the Harlem Coffee Guide for more spots.
Or Join us on our next coffee tour!