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Photo: Josh Potter

Mr. Joe

Coffee talk with Daily Grind proprietor Lee Cohen

By Josh Potter

As 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.

“In 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.

“I’m 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.”

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