Building Third Spaces Through Coffee: An Interview with Pushcart Coffee Co-founder Lisa Fischoff
At a coffee bar on the Lower East Side, Lisa Fischoff’s entrepreneurial spirit rose up and overtook her career plans. Within two weeks of starting work as a barista, Lisa offered to join the new owner as a partner – and he accepted.
Two years later, the founders are on a mission to grow community and neighborhood connection through café expansion. Currently, Pushcart Coffee has two Manhattan locations (one on 2nd Ave between 22st and 22nd streets, and one on East Broadway and Clinton street); by the end of 2013 Pushcart Coffee will have opened another shop in North Chelsea. The company also owns and operates and a commissary bakery that handles production for the shops. In addition, Pushcart Coffee deploys actual pushcarts from which it sells coffee and goodies at community events, and street markets such as the New Amsterdam Market. On weekdays you can find the Pushcart in Foley Square.
Pushcart Coffee takes urban planning and community development seriously. Its shops aim to be places where neighbors and community organizations can plan projects, develop programs, or simply talk and meet each other. This outlook is baked into the company’s business model and operations: each location produces a local newsletter that focuses on the neighborhood, and Pushcart Coffee employs a Community Liaison whose job is to identify local community organizations and find ways to partner with them so as to physically be involved in each neighborhood.
“It works,” Lisa says, laughing, “because coffee automatically brings people together.“
The business model is rooted in sound urban planning theory – specifically the idea of the ‘Third Place” espoused by Ray Oldenburg. In The Great Good Place, Oldenburg defines "third places" as locations where people can gather, put aside the concerns of work and home, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation; he goes on to argue that these Third Places are the heart of a community's social vitality and the grassroots of democracy.
Pushcart’s expansion plans are tied directly to their urban planning mindset. The owners seek out real estate in neighborhoods where a café is truly needed -- where there is openness, and residents truly want a community space. Although Pushcart is sticking to Manhattan for now, its shops are not in the trendiest or most central neighborhoods on the island. Lisa and co-owner Jamie Rogers aren’t afraid to be the first business on a block; because when they open and the customers come they can use that traffic to help attract other businesses to the neighborhood.
Rather than adopting a cookie cutter approach to establishing new locations, the owners research the history of the neighborhood and look for ways to tie the café to both existing and historical themes within the neighborhood.
This focus on history also underlies the choice of name for Pushcart Coffee. In the early Twentieth Century, pushcarts were a regular sight on the streets of New York City. Immigrants newly-arrived to NYC, with few skills and fewer job opportunities, slapped some wood on wheels and looked around for something to sell. “What is near me? What is local?” -- this is the spirit guiding Pushcart’s business model and growth plan.
The Gramercy location is known as Peter’s Field because the building is situated on property that was once Peter Stuyvesant’s farm. The reference ties this quintessential urban coffee experience directly to the historic food shed for NYC just as the shop’s purchasing choices tie the food products to our current food shed.
“I’ll always use local milk,” Lisa proclaims. “It just tastes better”.
Similarly, the café purchases many food products from burgeoning entrepreneurs who all need a showcase for their products. One successful example is Krumville Bake Shop; which started out selling gluten free cookies at Pushcart Coffee (and other venues) and has now expanded to selling at seven other locations in New York City including the Whole Foods in the Bowery.
Lisa and Jamie have used a DIY approach to building their business. They’ve had to jump into things and learn by doing. But with the prospect of opening their third and fourth location this method won’t work for much longer. With 35 employees, multiple locations, and the stress of continued expansion the team is also building more streamlined communications and a management team so that the owners aren’t responsible for solving every problem that comes up in the day to day operations.
As to the future? “We’ll continue to expand as opportunity comes along and makes sense. We are always looking.”