Caffeinated Combat Underway in Sag Harbor

A small green tea Matcha, small Flat White Latte' and Solo Cortado as prepared by barista Aiden Stivala at SagTown.
The crowd at Grindstone Coffee and Donuts on Sunday, August 7. Michael Heller photos
The crowd at Grindstone Coffee and Donuts on Sunday, August 7. Michael Heller photos

By Douglas Feiden

The raw numbers speak for themselves: Grindstone Coffee & Donuts opened on August 1 at 7 Main Street in Sag Harbor, and five days later, on its first Saturday in business, it sold 567 cups of coffee and roughly 2,200 donuts.

And the percentages are just as powerful: Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee opened on July 2 at 51 Division Street, and five weeks later, its tracking data shows, the percentage of returning customers versus new customers hit about 75%.

The Coffee Wars have broken out in Sag Harbor. More than a dozen java joints, markets, cafes and other boutique shops have been jolting the sleep-deprived, stimulating the social scene, jump-starting the regimen of the workplace and even doing their bit to energize the life of the village.

Fueled by the all-but unquenchable local appetite for a caffeine fix – what some have called the “elixir of life” and others brand “liquid love” – a healthy competition has sprung up in which multiple purveyors are now offering a vast array of consumer options, a diverse blend of aromas, flavors and brews, and a wide range of products, accessories and price points.

“We’ve had people say, ‘Oh, my God, another coffee shop,’” said Kyle Shanahan, the owner of Grindstone and a resident of Azurest. “But no one would ever look at a new restaurant and say, ‘Oh, my God, another place to have a steak.’”

Adds his girlfriend, Anna Coffman, the front-of-the-house manager at Grindstone, “Or another place where you can get a lobster roll. You just cannot look at things that way!”

Besides, to those who adore it, live it, breathe it, make it and consume it, coffee isn’t just a beverage, it’s a way of life that offers a refuge from their existential toils, torments and travails.

Manager Brian Barahona prepares a coffee at Jack's Stir-Brew Coffee in Sag Harbor.
Manager Brian Barahona prepares a coffee at Jack’s Stir-Brew Coffee in Sag Harbor.

And it defines one of the three essential spaces in life, said Jack Mazzola, the owner and eponymous founder of Jack’s in 2003. There is, of course, the “first place,” which is home, and the “second place,” which is work, Mr. Mazzola says. And then there is the “third place,” which is the local coffee shop.

“We all have to show up for work, and we all have to show up at home, but it’s that little space in our daily ritual that’s also so very important,” he said.

“You wake up in the morning, and maybe you’re having a bad day after that fight with the girlfriend or the boyfriend. But then you talk to the barista, who’s serving the highest quality and the purest form of our product, someone you’re on a first-name basis with who’s going to wish you a great day, and know what you like, and even say hello and goodbye, and that can be a pretty powerful thing.”

As for village competitors like Grindstone, which debuted one month after his own grand opening, Mr. Mazzola doesn’t sound particularly fretful: “The more the merrier,” he says.

Indeed, Rob Friedlander, the chief marketing officer for Jack’s, says there is room for everyone. “We don’t see this as coffee wars,” he added. “In any market environment, we do our thing, the guy down the block does his thing, which causes us to be on our toes, which means the guys down the street are going to answer that call, and it’s a very healthy tension. It raises the bar for everyone, and the end product benefits the consumer.”

Of course, a high-end brew doesn’t come cheap. The large latte and iced latte at Jack’s cost $4.89 and $5.11 respectively, while Grindstone prices both its latte and iced latte at $5.25 a pop.

The blossoming coffee scene, and its embrace by a new generation of villagers and visitors, represents a volte-face for Sag Harbor, which was once renowned for its saloons. In fact, on a pub crawl in 1981, Anthony Brandt, now the chairman of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, counted 23 bars. Most are long gone.

A century and a half earlier, the village taverns had catered to the whaling and seafaring trade, and at the turn of the 20th century, they served the factory workers. But the vanishing of those industries set in motion, albeit slow motion, the diminution of the watering-hole culture, and arguably, over time, its place has been usurped by the coffeehouse culture.

For legions of people these days, the stimulant of choice has become caffeine, not booze, a phenomenon that is already pronounced in Manhattan and Brooklyn, from which so many visitors and summer residents hail, and it is a trend that appears to be accelerating in Sag Harbor, too.

Coffee lovers gather in front of Grindstone Coffee and Donuts on Sunday.
Coffee lovers gather in front of Grindstone Coffee and Donuts on Sunday.

Grindstone and Jack’s are just the newest entrants into an already-crowded field. Coffee aficionados can also be found daily at Sylvester & Company, at 103 Main Street, in pursuit of Dreamy Iced Coffee, cold-brew coconut and assorted temptations from Sumatra and Nicaragua.

How is that coffee found its way amid merchandise that can cost hundreds of times more than the $3.95 price tag for a 16-ounce cup of Joe?

“I had a big store in a small town in a seasonal environment,” said owner Lynda Sylvester. “What’s girl to do? I had to have a reason for people to come in every day.” So she installed a coffee bar as a welcoming element which she said “provided a waiting station for husbands” as their wives shopped for pricier items in the store.

“We developed a very significant following given that I’m in the home furnishing business!” she said.

That was in 1990, and Sylvester’s has never looked back. More recently, she co-founded Red Thread Good Coffee, which markets its products in 175 stores and donates two cents of every cup of coffee it sells to the Food Pantry Farm in East Hampton and God’s Love We Deliver in New York City. “It’s bringing philanthropy to the everyday Joe,” Ms. Sylvester said.

How does a Sag Harbor coffee pioneer regard the new entrepreneurial kids down the block? “It’s probably not great for my business, but it’s not terrible either,” she said. “I’m all about Main Street, that has been a mantra of mine for 25 years, and if it attracts more people to Main Street, that will be great for the community.”

She also marvels at the fact that donuts are actually being created in the commercial heart of the village: “It’s kind of sweet isn’t it? No pun intended,” Ms. Sylvester says. “It’s the concept of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. They’ve invented something, and they’re making something, right here on Main Street. And somebody should celebrate that.”

Another cornerstone of the java scene is SagTown Coffee, tucked into the Shopping Cove at 78 Main Street, which is a stylish café that offers baked goods and gourmet brews – like thick-caramel macchiato, Espresso Rosette and La Colombe Dark Roast – in what it calls a “chill space” fronting a popular outdoor patio, where competition for an outdoor berth can be ferocious.

A Sunday morning scene at SagTown Coffee.
A Sunday morning scene at SagTown Coffee.

“What I think sets me apart is the coffee is a superior product,” said owner Shane Dyckman, noting that he has seen a decrease of 75-100 transactions per day since Grindstone opened, a slip from his summertime average of 750 transactions per day. “I am a community hub. Everyone meets there, I have indoor seating and I have outdoor seating. But I always feel competition is a good thing. It makes you do your own thing even better.”

When SagTown first arrived in the Cove in 2012, it had some big shoes to fill. For 17 years, the spot had been occupied by Java Nation, a beloved institution and leading social hub run by Andres and Cheryl Bedini, who have since decamped to 112 Maple Lane in Bridgehampton. The Bedinis moved to Sag Harbor in 1993 from California, where coffee shops were already a craze. They realized Sag Harbor had no true coffee shop, so they set up shop just off Main Street to not only serve coffee, but also roast their own signature blends.

A small green tea Matcha, small Flat White Latte' and Solo Cortado as prepared by barista Aiden Stivala at SagTown.
A small green tea Matcha, small Flat White Latte’ and Solo Cortado as prepared by barista Aiden Stivala at SagTown.

“It was funky, it had a fun atmosphere, and it was cool that they were roasting beans,” said Nick Gazzolo, a community leader and president of the John Jermain Memorial Library. ”It had a real global feeling with different coffee bags from around the world, no attitude, and it had a college town vibe to it, the kind of place you’d expect to see in Vermont.”

“I think we spoiled a lot of people,” said Mr. Bedini, noting that Java Nation coffee was often roasted, ground and served on the same day. “Kids from Sag Harbor went off to college, people would tell them about great coffee, and they would say ‘you have no idea.’”

Java Nation lost its lease in 2012 and set up shop in Bridgehampton, where it has built a new wave of loyal followers. Its coffee is sold wholesale and carries on in Sag Harbor through establishments like Provisions and Page restaurant. Mr. Bedini said on Tuesday that he is also in talks with the owners of Grindstone to sell Java Nation blends there as well.

While stressing that the coffee at SagTown is excellent, Mr. Gazzolo said the passing of Java Nation underscores the “difference between Sag Harbor 10 years ago and where we are today.”

“We knew that things were changing, and a place like Java Nation worked best when we were the Unhampton, and now, that’s less the case,” he added. “The character of that place recalled a different Sag Harbor, a more informal place, and that’s why some folks were sorry to see it go. Main Street now is a little less salty, a little more upscale.”

Mr. Gazzolo says he’s overjoyed at the advent of Jack’s, and he’s long frequented the shop’s Amagansett outpost. But as often as five times a week, you can find him at the Golden Pear Cafe, a fixture at 111 Main Street since 2006 that offers blends like Georgica French Roast, Coopers Hazelnut and Little Plains Caramel. It’s on his “cat-path” along Main Street, and he takes his French Roast with milk, no sugar, he says.

The coffe island was busy with customers getting their morning cup of coffee at 7-11 on Wednesday.
The coffee island was busy with customers getting their morning cup of coffee at 7-11 on Wednesday.

Brew-drinkers in the early morning regularly throng Schiavoni’s Market, 48 Main Street, helping themselves to the Bold Italian in the rear of the store and the specialty products from Four Five, a hip micro-roasting facility based in Queens. Also doing a booming business is the Harbor Market & Kitchen, 184 Division Street, where both the medium-bodied regular brew and the flavorful if strong Espresso blend originate at Organic Aldo’s Coffee in Greenport.

Even Sag Harbor’s 7-Eleven, the grab-and-go at 20-22 West Water Street that is not typically a mecca for gourmet fare, boasts at least a dozen freshly roasted offerings virtually ‘round-the-clock and has been an unheralded java destination for years.

Steaming hot coffee – big, bold, balanced, flavorful and smooth – is also cupped at LT Burger, at 62 Main Street; Bagel Buoy Market, at 3 Bay Street, and Provisions Natural Foods Market & Organic Café, at the corner of Bay and Division streets.

And when the venerable Cove Delicatessen, at 283 Main Street, marked its 25th anniversary on August 1, coincidentally, the very day that Grindstone opened, it invited the community to come in for free coffee and cake to thank Sag Harbor for its unyielding support.

As for Grindstone, a mere 10 days after it opened its doors, it has a large army of regulars that includes Robbie Vorhaus, the author, communications strategist and self-professed coffee junkie whose drink of choice is the “Red Eye,” also known as “A Shot in the Dark,” a dark roast coffee with a shot of Espresso.

“I’m driven by donuts, and when someone offers me a good donut and a properly made, well-sourced cup of coffee, I’m transported,” he said. “And to me, that’s the perfect meal.”

In fact, so eager was Mr. Vorhaus to sample the goods that he waited on line on opening day and became one of the first customers to step into the new shop. Yes, coffee can stir up genuine passions. But why would anybody actually do that? “Because I’m a dork,” Mr. Vorhaus replied.