talk with Daily Grind proprietor Lee Cohen
any committed coffee drinker will tell you, a good cup of
coffee is as much about the ritual as it is about flavor.
For over 30 years, Lee Cohen’s retail shop and roastery, on
the second floor of his Daily Grind café on Lark Street, has
been a sort of sanctuary for the caffeine cult. Amid bags
and barrels of beans and the steady din of his turn-of-the-century
roaster (with which he roasts all of his coffee), Cohen presides
as an unwitting icon of the Coffee and Cigarettes generation.
It’s no coincidence that a portrait of Tom Waits hangs above
the counter. “Anybody knows what good or bad coffee is,” he
says through a sly grin to dismiss the notion of his connoisseurship,
but this doesn’t mean that Cohen isn’t an expert on the subject.
In three decades, his business has gone from a happy accident
to its own kind of ritual, one that he and the bulk of the
beverage world could never have anticipated at its inception.
Cohen’s parents owned a wine store in the area, but growing
up he had no plan to follow in their footsteps. After college
he went into social work for three years before quitting and
traveling across country. When he arrived back in the area
in August of ’78, his sister, Barrye, had purchased a coffee
shop. “One day she asked me to come in and take inventory,”
he says, “and 30 years later I’m still working.”
These were the days before Starbucks, and very few other coffee
shops even existed at the time. Daily Grind was even more
rare in that it sold beans. “I remember that a salesman named
Marty came in to sell me coffee grinders and I said, ‘Marty,
why would you bother?’ I ordered six for about $50, and within
three years we were buying them by the gross.” While most
know the Daily Grind for its two cafes in Albany and Troy,
Cohen has continued to deal in bulk beans and coffee brewing
apparatus. “When I started out,” he says, “people did not
know what cappuccino was. Now our espresso is really well
received. I just made a shipment to Hawaii yesterday.”
The thing was, when Cohen started out, he didn’t know any
more about coffee than his customers did. “Here’s how I learned
coffee: Someone would come in and ask about something and
I’d call the supplier. Sometimes I’d call him 10 times a week.
Then I started reading about it. Over a short period of time,
most of the general questions were understood, and then over
longer periods the more nuanced questions were understood.
Over a really long time there was more information than anyone
wanted to deal with.”
Lucky for his business, the coffee culture was busy asking
these questions at the same time, so as Cohen was learning
the finer points of roasting, the average coffee drinker had
started down the path from instant to canned, whole bean to
specialty coffees. “In 1980, we were one of probably a dozen
places in the country that roasted coffee in their store.
In 1984, we opened a second store in Troy. In ’88, we opened
a third store in Delmar, which lasted two years, and in 1990
we opened the café downstairs [from the Lark Street roastery].”
His lackluster experience in Delmar is a good reference point
for his success in Albany. “Delmar killed us—it was so suburban,”
he says, and when he moved the store to Albany, “all I wanted
to do was pay off the loan. But on the second day we were
open someone came in, sat down and said they were waiting
to meet someone else. How did he even know we were here to
say ‘meet me at the Daily Grind’? People come in here and
it sticks with them. Now we sell thousands of cups a week.”
Just as the Daily Grind is partially responsible for Lark
Street’s “village in the city” identity, the neighborhood
itself is responsible for the business’ success. “The area
is always young,” he says. “I remember hearing teachers say
that every year they get older their students stay the same
age. I’ve seen 26 year olds for 30 years. It’s somewhat of
a bohemian neighborhood and it always has been.
the ’60s and ’70s, this was a shithole, but that’s part of
the reason why the gay population could come in and renovate
so much. When I was younger it was all headshops, bars, and
cheap beer. They were so successful doing it that Main Street
eventually came in.”
Cohen says the neighborhood has cleaned up a lot in the past
few decades and has grown more sophisticated as more families
move in. He says the flaw with Albany is that it’s always
been too suburban. “People live in suburbia, shop in suburbia,
and once in a great while, some event will bring them down
and they’ll say, ‘oh, this is cute.’ ” He says it’s a big
deal that people are investing in businesses like McGuire’s
and New World Bistro Bar because it helps bring people downtown.
As a whole, he’s glad to call Albany home. “We’re in a major
crisis right now and you wouldn’t want to be in Detroit. Albany’s
a pretty stable place because of the government and the schools.
The average person can maintain.
55 and five years ago I had this realization that this is
what I’m doing now! I’d done this longer than I’d done anything
else. I just rolled from one year to the next and it was on
my mind that I could do something else, but this was just
fun. You’ll never get rich doing this, but I’ll keep doing
it if the community supports me.”