20 years is a mile marker, an accomplishment, a tremendous passing of time, and a cause for celebration. Such has been the scene this summer in New York City, where Joe Coffee—the iconic NY coffee brand founded in 2003 by Jonathan and Gabrielle Rubinstein—has celebrated two decades of daily coffee service at their original location, at the corner of Waverly Place and Gay Street in the heart of the historic West Village.
Now with 24 locations across New York in partnership with Enlightened Hospitality Investments, the heart and soul of Joe remains there in the West Village. To celebrate, Joe rang in the occasion with an event called Waverly Fest, a gathering of friends old and new featuring food and drink specials, cupcakes by the author and actress Amy Sedaris, music, and the placement of a ceremonial plaque on the location’s exterior. The celebration continued into July, when on July 17th the Waverly Joe marked its official 20th year open for business by serving drip or iced coffee for $1.75, the original price when Joe opened in 2003.
This is a special time for the company, but also for the very real humans behind the brand. “It’s been like an episode of ‘This Is Your Life,’” laughs Jonathan Rubinstein. I spoke with him in a reflective mood to learn more about 20 years of Joe, the celebration and the nostalgia, and what it all means.
Hi Jonathan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I want to just lay it all out there—tell me more about Waverly Fest.
We’ve become such a part of the community there in the West Village over the last 20 years, and Waverly Fest was a way for us to celebrate the customers and staff at our original shop. But it was also something we wanted to do that felt like… not too commercialized, or without making much money on it. We wanted to do something that felt homey and a little rough around the edges, and really like a throwback to what coffee was like in New York 20 years ago. So we planned out three days of events. We have always had regulars and customers who are talented musicians, including some Grammy winners, and so we had our friends play music. We also sold tastes of things we’d offered previously over the years, and made it kind of a meet and greet with the founders.
I was there all weekend with my sister and my parents, and so many regulars came, including some I hadn’t personally seen in like 10 years or more. People made an effort to come down—some from upstate, some from uptown, some still living right there in the neighborhood. And we used the weekend to launch or Coldstretto program as well, which felt like going back to our roots in a way, because it’s cutting edge and in 2003 Joe was very cutting edge. There were raffles and fundraisers going on as well, and of course the Amy Sedaris cupcakes, which have gotten a lot of attention—I know you know that story.
I *do* know that story, but can you please tell it for our readers who might not be familiar?
Oh sure, it’s a funny story. So, we opened Joe on July 17th 2003 we *think*—I always have to put an asterisk there because back then we had a cash register that only took cash, and there was no iPhone, and we didn’t even have a business computer yet, and so there’s no official record of the day we opened. We *think* it was July 17th. What I do know is that on the third day we were in business, Sarah Jessica Parker came into the shop—she lives nearby—and asked for the owner, which was me. She sat me down she said, basically, “My friend Amy Sedaris from Strangers With Candy has this side business for fun where she bakes cupcakes. She was selling them at this coffee bar on Christopher Street that just went out of business, and so, would you guys be interested in selling her cupcakes?”
I said of course! And so SJP told me to give her a call, gave me her number, and said, “Tell her you’re my friend.” And I mean, this was in 2003, the very height of the original run of Sex And The City, and the whole time I’m just thinking… “Sarah Jessica Parker just called me her friend!”
Yes. And so I called Amy, and we struck a deal: she agreed to make like a dozen cupcakes or so in a batch, and we’d give her a dollar for each one and sell them for two as “Amy Sedaris Cupcakes.” It wound up being the very first bit of publicity we ever got as a shop, our very first press, which we also don’t have copies of because these clips were all in paper and not online. But word spread, and it got to the point where people would call from like, Alabama and other places far outside the city, and try to order five dozen cupcakes from us for their wedding, which was not something that was going to happen but it was still just amazing to us. Amy was so nice about it all—she would just walk in with the cupcakes and sell them to us by hand, and use the money to help fund her rabbit rescue—but all her friends, the cool downtown actors of that era who were kinda famous but also very much real artists, like Daniel Day Lewis, Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, Mary Louise Parker (they all had three names), they would start hanging out at the cafe, coming in with Amy, and buying the cupcakes. It became a sort of *thing*, like what used to happen before social media. And it was really important to the early days of Joe.
Yeah. It was a really special time. So for Waverly Fest, we asked Amy this special favor. We asked her to choose a charity and bring her cupcakes back to the shop again for the first time in 20 years, like she used to do in 2003. And she did it! She walked in with 75 cupcakes personally, and we sold them for charity as a pay-what-you-want sort of thing, with donations up to $10. And this to me felt like a perfect sort of moment for Waverly Fest, like—that was Waverly Fest, a lot of these kinds of things that made us kind of feel like what we used to feel like 20 years ago, with old customers and old staff and friends.
Jonathan, describe to me what this all felt like, and what you’ll remember from the celebration.
To be honest, the whole thing felt like an episode of This Is Your Life in a way!
There were people who came to Waverly Fest and had to plan a special trip for it, people who me, my sister, and my parents hadn’t seen in a decade or more, but there were also people who have literally come into the shop every day for 20 years, who I still see all the time around the neighborhood. It is very thrilling, and very surreal, to see someone who is now 20 years into their life who you used to know as a college student, or as a child, only now they are middle aged, or now they have a walker because they used to be middle aged when you first met them. There were dozens and dozens of moments like this throughout the weekend, and it was all very emotional, actually, feeling these strong connections. For a time all those years ago, I was the one standing behind that counter, behind that cash register, and the relationships we forged then were very important for me and my sister.
It was especially moving to see people come in now who are married, or in domestic partnerships, and maybe they even have kids. I can say, “Hey kid, if Joe didn’t open you might not exist!” Because their parents had their first date here, or they met across the counter—that kid is half-customer half-barista! It was so touching, all of it.
Tell me a little bit about the commemorative plaque—did you need to jump through hoops with the city? What inspired this?
Well, I live out in Brooklyn near the location of the original Häagen-Dazs, which opened in 1976, and it has a plaque, which I always thought was so cool. And so we felt like doing that for Joe Waverly felt kind of right, and like we had maybe earned it after 20 years. At one point we had looked into turning Waverly Fest into a sort of official block party, and *that* would have required us to jump through all sorts of hoops with the city, and also quite a lot of money. But a plaque is comparatively easy, and didn’t require a city permit.
How has the West Village changed over the last 20 years? How is it the same?
I think the neighborhood has changed very little with the asterisk of COVID. New York City has always kind of gone in waves, especially the area around Washington Square Park, and that area has had some problems over the last few years. But somehow the little gem of 6th Avenue to Christopher Street doesn’t feel it in the same ways. There are definitely more banks and Duane Reades now, but the heart of what the Village means to people as this historic destination, a counter culture hub, an artistic epicenter, and the historic home of the gay rights movement, that is all still here. That all still feels like it feels, which is a little rough around the edges, a little different and proud of it. I still get my hair cut at the place across the street from Joe that I’ve been going to for 20 years. For the people who live here and for the people who visit, the West Village is this little gem, and we want our store to reflect that. Even the inside of our store is almost untouched, with the same floors, the same walls, the same ceiling. There’s real history here.
Learn more about 20 years of Joe on Instagram.
Joe Coffee is an advertising partner on Sprudge Media Network.