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NY Coffee Chronicles: Bluebird Becomes a Newbird

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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

Bluebird Coffee Shop, the beloved Lower East Side serious-coffee-boîte-and-bakery, changed hands two weeks ago, and is now reopened. The changeover from original owners Mark Connell and wife Jessica Connell to Alex Hall and Sabrina Godfrey, owners of two popular Brooklyn neighborhood cafes (MIlk Bar in Prospect Heights and Cafe Madeleine in Ditmas Park) has spawned an unusual amount of controversy—and sparked an interesting question: what makes a special coffee shop special? Is it as simple as looking in and seeing the "right" equipment and "right" roaster's beans in place on the counter? Or does it go beyond all that?

Both outgoing and new owners think the transition should be graceful: a beautiful space at 1st and 1st, continuing to serve Counter Culture Coffee via filter and espresso, on the same equipment, with the same basic barista training. The baker and the food menu are changing—but Bluebird's former baker had already jumped to Fort Defiance before the transition.

New owner Alex Hall thinks people's widely expressed frustration is a little out of proportion to the reality of running a coffee bar that he more or less plans to keep the same, with an increased focus on the customer.

"We're ordering the same coffee in the same way, have the same machines," says Hall. "It's a little surprising how horrified the response has been that the walls have changed color from blue to cream."

But if the magic of a special coffee shop lies in the people, most of those will have changed. All employees—including former Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Champion Katie Duris, also the staff trainer—were offered the opportunity to continue on, but only one remains.

Under Duris' stewardship, Connell acknowledges that Bluebird "quickly became known as a coffee shop known for very high standards...we became very beloved in the neighborhood very quickly, and the drinks, and the baked goods, had a lot to do with it, but I think more of it had to do with my wife and myself and the staff."

The changeover—even in people—needn't be a game-killer, though: Connell thinks the new regime may even be able to do one better on what he and his wife, Jessica Connell, began in the failed Simon Sips spot.

"We wanted to sell it to someone who would hopefully continue not only the standards, but the feel of it, the essence of it as well. And I think Alex and Sabrina certainly seem to build neighborhood sort of spots, and have great people working for them, so we thought that they'd be able to maintain and maybe build on what we've already built," said Connell.

Though Milk Bar is more of a food-cafe with a great coffee bar, and Cafe Madeleine a straightforward serious-coffee place, Hall expects Bluebird to fall more towards the latter in the footsteps of the old Bluebird, with perhaps a little more relaxation in terms of the needs of the soy mocha set.

"My whole idea with coffee is I take the attitude out of it. We use very high quality coffee, but in a very friendly manner as well, that dictates that the customer is always right. We do that in a nurturing way with the customer, and I think that's important."

The Connells, meanwhile, are hopeful that the future of their former shop is bright.

"We're hoping they maintain the standards of it and maybe surpass them as well. Because we live in the neighborhood," pauses Connell, "We want a nice coffee shop to go to."

Bluebird Coffee Shop

72 East 1st Street, New York NY 10003 (map)
212-260-18-79; bluebirdcoffeeshop.com

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