On a beautiful day in August, we sat down with Michael Zawacki, owner of Daily Press Coffee in Bed-Stuy, and its sister shop in Williamsburg, to talk about coffee, neighborhoods and how as a small business owner you’re always looking for ways to improve.
So how did you first get interested in coffee?
Like most people, in a very roundabout way. I moved to Bed-Stuy in 2006. I’ve always had an interest in history and urban planning and I just loved the fabric of the neighborhood, the architecture, the history, etc. Though as a Brooklyn neighborhood, it really lacked services.
I have a construction background, and at the time I was building high end retail stores and I kept thinking I’d love to build some useful retail in my neighborhood—maybe a general store or something. Then, like a lot of people, I got laid off in 2008. I was sitting in a coffee shop, one of the very few in the neighborhood at this point, and I was thinking I really wanted to open a coffee shop that celebrates the history of this neighborhood.
So how was the process from idea to build-out?
Well I got another job doing construction stuff, and started working on my business plan. I’d tried to write a business plan before for an idea I’d had about helping people live more energy efficiently and I just never could finish it, but this time it went much faster. I started writing the plan in May 2009 and determined to be open by April 2011. I also realized I didn’t really know anything about coffee. I went to all the shops in the city trying to get a job on the weekends, just to learn and realized there was real professional culture of baristas. The only place that would hire me was a natural grocery store. They had a cafe set up inside and though they bought beans from well respected roasters, no one there took it very seriously. I found a coffee handbook from Gimme! there and really dug into it. I remember telling the owners, hey I back flushed the machine today and they weren’t nearly as excited as I was. I also reached out to everyone in coffee I heard about and was really surprised how generous all the shop owners and community at large were with information. I also learned that there isn’t really a secret to all of this, success lies in how you execute, in all the details lining up, every day.
Tell us about finding the space and pulling the pieces together for the first Daily Press Coffee?
While I was learning about coffee, I also finished my business plan and met a business partner. That really helped get things moving. We saw the space on Franklin in November or December of 2010 and opened April 28, 2011. I learned a lot of lessons along the way.
I’ve heard some stories about the demo and build-out, you did most of the work yourself?
No, I was working on a construction job at the time, project managing for an energy efficiency company in the South Bronx, but I’d come in after work and keep up the work till 10 or 11 at night and help keep things moving on weekends. The space was a beauty supply shop, but when we started ripping it out we found a second false ceiling above the first and it was actually connected to the walls. It was like a big steel box, not sure I want to know what it was for. We had to burn out that ceiling with torches. We found a lot of other strange stuff under the floor, and in the walls. My favorite was a subway ticket inside the wall. And I still find interesting relics when I’m doing anything in the backyard.
I love the framed subway ticket! Is that part of how you use the space to pay homage to the history of the neighborhood?
Yes! When I was still in the researching phase I spent a lot of time at the NY Public Library searching historical facts about the neighborhood, businesses in the area, etc. I learned that the Teddy Bear was invented in Bed-Stuy by a party store on Tompkins. And I was also very specific about the cafe being in Bed-Stuy, not Clinton Hill. We stock a book in the shop from the Images of America History series just on Bedford-Stuyvesant.It’s one of my inspirations.
What did you want to do differently when you decided it was time to open the second shop?
Build adequate bar space! It was nice to start from scratch and really think a space through in terms of improving the customer experience, the staff’s work flow. I mean there could always be more space behind the bar or for storage, but it was nice to take what we learned from Bed-Stuy and apply it to a totally new space. Really start from the dust and the beams. The build out took a little longer than planned and we did a lot more detailed finishing touches, so we didn’t open until November 2013.
How did you first learn about Irving Farm?
From the beginning I wanted to work with as many local companies as possible. After the first year we started doing our guest roaster program, it was great to meet new companies and be able to still engage in changes and developments happening in the coffee world. I first heard about Irving Farm then, I really loved their coffee and all the people I met from the company. About the time we started working on the second shop I realized it was time to make a change and improve our house coffee and espresso as well. I reached out to Irving Farm and we’ve been using them as our primary roaster since the beginning of this year. They are really great people and really easy to work with—Teresa especially is rad. The quality is solidly reliable. And they are so knowledgeable and personable; the support on everything from technical equipment maintenance to better coffee preparation has been incredible. I had the opportunity to take staff up to the roastery and it was a really nice opportunity to introduce them to one more step in the process. I feel like they’re a real partner, not just another vendor looking to pick up a check.
So what are you working on now?
As a business owner I’m never satisfied. If you’re not trying to continuously improve upon something, you’re dead. What i really gravitate to is building things and then maintaining/improving upon them. While coffee is central to my business, I spend most of my time reconfiguring things to make the space more inviting, easier for staff and customers to use. I can hang out in the basement of the hardware store with the guys that work there for hours, learning about different building materials and techniques. I’ve learned how to fix (almost) everything in the shop by tinkering around with it and asking a lot of questions. This whole process of opening and running a cafe, now two cafes, keeps me continually humbled. I’m in awe that anyone ever gets anything done. From coffee to small business, there’s so many pieces to the puzzle.
Thanks for your time, Michael, and for representing us so well in Brooklyn!