Walk into Harlem's month-old Shuteye Coffee on any given day and you won't be met by a rotating mix of anonymous employees behind the counter. Rather, you'll be greeted by the welcoming faces of Joe Vannucchi and Guy Samuelson, the owners themselves.
That's not by accident. Vannucchi and Samuelson opened their small coffee shop on 116th Street not just as a business, but as part of a carefully-thought-out dream to serve top-notch coffee while bringing neighbors together. "I was looking for a way to get involved in the community, and Guy and I had always talked about having a little shop for people to relax and connect in," explains Vannucchi.
Their minimalist-but-warm cafe serves East One Coffee, roasted in Brooklyn by a friend of the duo, as well as teas and pastries from Bien Cuit and Underwest Donuts. The partners remodeled the former dry cleaners themselves, adding distinctive details like made-in-Italy glass espresso cups and a happy collection of plants that warm up the store's walls and corners.
As the pair, who both live in Harlem and Vannucchi describes as two "goofy" guys, start planning events in the coffee shop, they took the time to answer a few detailed questions about their new venture (replies are by Vannucchi):
Tell me a little bit about your business (the elevator pitch version).
We are a new espresso bar in Harlem serving thoughtfully prepared and sourced espresso and tea. Our coffee is made by local Harlem roaster Selina Ulrich. We also serve pastries and snacks out of our small space on West 116th Street.
Why did you pick your location? (Both this stretch of 116th Street and Harlem in general.)
I was walking by the vacant space for about a year and I thought it might be the right one. Most coffee professionals would tell you it's important to open a shop like ours in an area that already has the market for what you're selling, but I wanted to create a space that would help change the way people think about modern coffee while also feeling like an old-school friendly neighborhood place in which to relax. This block seemed perfect.
Why did you decide to open a coffee shop (and Shuteye in particular)?
Guy and I have worked in coffee for a long time. His dream was always to open a small espresso-focused shop of his own one day, and after I met our roaster, Selina, and tasted her coffee (which is amazing) as well as talked to the owners of the building our shop is in, it felt like if we were going to do something, this was it.
What sets your coffee shop apart from all the rest?
When you walk into our shop, time slows down. It's a warm and inviting space that anyone can feel welcome in. We connect with every single person that comes through the door because half of the business is connecting with our neighbors. They know our names and we know theirs (and what they like to drink). It's more like an old-school bar than a modern American coffee shop or cafe. We also just happen to work with one of the best roasters in the country. Our customers will tell you that what we serve tastes incredible and at the same time not quite like what many shops are serving.
If you had to name just one thing to try at Shuteye, what would it be?
When someone comes in and they aren't sure what they want or like, I usually go through the same process. I ask if they like espresso, milk, tea, etc. Through connecting with the customer you can discover exactly what they want, even if they don't know it yet. I would suggest starting with one of our espressos straight up, and going from there. We love letting people taste everything.
What are you proudest about in terms of your business?
We are happy to be accepted by the block we're on mostly. You can have the best product in the world but if your neighbors aren't happy you're there, is it truly a success? When someone who's lived in Harlem for forty years tells you they love coming in every day and getting a drink and saying hello, you're reminded that you're doing something special. When the person next to them in line is a coffee professional and this is their favorite new spot, that's nice too.
Where do you see Shuteye in one year? In 5?
Guy and I will probably still be here every day, serving up espresso to our regulars. It's a good life.