We interviewed the co-owner of Joe Coffee Company – Gabrielle Rubinstein – who shared with us the journey of how Jonathan and Gabrielle Rubinstein grew the Joe Coffee name from the humble Manhattan coffee house to its 19 outlets through New York and Philadelphia.
Better Coffeer: We heard you were an opera singer. Why did you decide to open Joe Coffee with your brother Jonathan?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: It’s my belief that opera singers always need a day job. I was returning from a year with the Utah Opera Company and had no desire to work as a real estate rental agent. I had recurring nightmares from it.
However, I love coffee, and when I was touring in Utah, I traveled with a coffee maker and fresh beans. This was close as to specialty coffee as someone from the East Coast in 2002 would know.
Better Coffeer: What’s your secret to building a successful sibling relationship?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: Interesting question! We each find things to do for Joe that are different from each other, allowing us not to interact as much. We typically agree on most things.
Better Coffeer: What was it like on day one when you opened Waverly Place?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: It was exciting; similar to opening a show. We couldn’t wait to show NYC great coffee and latte art. The first customer we had purchased bottle soda, and we were a little disappointed. And, the corner guitar-playing alcoholic guy told us we’d never make it. I went outside and lured people in with free drinks, and they became some lifelong customers.
Better Coffeer: What was the toughest moment in the beginning?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: I remember in the great power outage in August of 2003, we were only four weeks old. We didn’t have power, so all of our food was expiring and we didn’t know what to do. We were out in the streets handing out food, giving away gallons of milk, lending money to regulars because ATMs were out and you couldn’t get money, taking money out of the cash register. This was a pretty risky thing to be doing on only day 25 of being in business, but like all of New York City, we survived it.
Better Coffeer: What were the key things you’ve learned the last 16 years running Joe Coffee?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: Everything depends on the staff treats customers.
While the coffee is great, how you treat the customers makes them choose whether or not to come back. Every transaction should be viewed as a long-term relationship.
If somebody forgets their wallet, we should still give them their coffee. If somebody has had a bag of coffee in their fridge for six months and they don’t like it how tastes, we provide them with a new bag — things like this.
Better Coffeer: How is Joe Coffee able to create and maintain its culture even when growing?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: We consider our staff as being the people of Joe, allowing them to express who they are without the need for a uniform. We let them display the art they love. We listen to their opinions with an open mind.
Better Coffeer: With a plethora of funded third-wave coffee shops in the country, would you consider their continued success is tied to real estate management?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: This, and the fact with the amount of money behind you means you don’t have to make money at all your stores. Just a visible presence may be enough to stay open with a long-term plan of being a nationally-recognized brand. However, the question really isn’t within my knowledge set.
Better Coffeer: What is the funniest thing that has ever happened over at Joe Coffee?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: It’s New York, so famous people have always come into the store—from David Schwimmer to Nancy Pelosi—and of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a longtime fixture at our Waverly Place location.
And the only time Rachael Ray came in, I was on bar at 13th street and she ordered a bagel. I was so nervous that while I was using one of those bagel-slicing guillotines, I pressed down too hard and the guillotine went flying and landed on her table, and her.
Better Coffeer: What’s this about your “Love Karma?” Have any magical sparks come through?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: You must have seen the New York Times article and video. No one I’ve tried to set up has stayed together, so I say I did more harm than good.
Better Coffeer: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: My mom and dad used to always say, “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
When I was young, I thought that meant I was supposed to be great at everything. I put a lot of pressure on myself, which was exhausting and full of failures.
We call this grit and determination, and failures that are actually good. There’s no reason to be great at everything. Just keep moving forward!
Better Coffeer: What are the books, people and places that have impacted you the most?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: Australia café life, Charleston hospitality, Barbara Corcoran’s podcast and Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table.
Better Coffeer: Gabrielle, thank you for sharing your journey with us, where can people follow along or drop by for a cup of joe?
Gabrielle Rubinstein: You can visit us at our New York or and Philadelphia coffee shops or follow on our journey in our book Joe: The Coffee Book!