The staying power of the local coffeehouse

The heartbeat of most business models is traffic. Move people in. Move people out. Keep the customers flowing, and the cash register humming. Alicia Love is as fond of money as any small-business owner, but she and her husband, Mike, have built a bustling enterprise predicated on an entirely different concept.

Twenty-five miles north of midtown Manhattan, on the east bank of the Hudson River, the Loves aren’t just okay with their customers lingering awhile. They welcome it and, indeed, encourage it – an attitude that has helped make their shop, Coffee Labs, the de facto hub of the charming village of Tarrytown, New York, a caffeinated little outpost featuring an array of rich, robust brews, 19 seats and over $1 million in annual sales.

If Starbucks pioneered the culture of the American coffee house, Coffee Labs has infused it with a distinct Hudson Valley flavour, and an unspoken invitation to hang.

 “You want people to feel that comfort to stay,” Alicia Love said, sitting at a small table in the shop, where the whir of the coffee roasting machine in the corner is as much a constant as the line of customers. “Coffee shops are about community and hanging out. If you don’t have that vibe, I don’t think people will want to be there as much.”

About 85 per cent of Coffee Labs sales come from repeat customers. It’s a number Love is justifiably proud of, and always seeking to increase.

“Our business isn’t built on turnover. It’s built on loyalty,” she said. Ask her if she has ever wondered how much more money Coffee Labs might make if customers shortened their stays, and her answer comes without hesitation:

“I’ve never thought about it.”

When Coffee Labs (the name comes from Alicia Love’s coffee-loving chocolate Labrador retriever) opened in 2003, it was one of the first high-end coffee shops in the New York metropolitan area. It has long since morphed into a massive local success story, literally on Main St. Parking is tight, and seats are hard to find, and the line can get long, but none of that seems to deter Labs loyalists, who come with their laptops or friends and, though they may not know it, are part of a centuries-old American tradition that traces to 1773. That was the year the British Parliament passed The Tea Act, a measure that undercut the colonists’ ability to sell tea and ultimately led to the Boston Tea Party. After 92,000 pounds of tea got tossed into Boston Harbor on December 16th, 1773, coffee gradually came to be viewed as the patriotic beverage of choice in the colonies – a beverage to be savoured, and shared with others.

“Revolutionaries gathered over coffee. Writers gathered over coffee,” Love said. “People still gather over coffee.”

The sense of gathering, and community, is as much a part of Coffee Labs as roasting the beans. The Loves like to call their products “Relationship Coffees,” and not just because they buy directly from coffee farmers in locations ranging from Honduras to Hawaii to Burundi. As they say on their website, the transaction involves “forming real friendships with people all over the world. We do business with these people, but we also break bread with them and we know some of their families. We get to know a lot of them pretty well, and we strive to visit [them at] origin at least one or two times a year. It's not just about inspecting the farm and tasting the coffee, it's about people.”

Closer to home, Coffee Labs’ focus on community means donating coffee and gift certificates to local causes, sponsoring youth sports teams, supporting veterans’ groups.

“If the community is giving to us, we need to give back to the community. That’s a big part of who we are,” Alicia Love said. “We almost never say no.”

Sustainability is likewise a major emphasis for Coffee Labs, whether by donating used burlap coffee bean bags to Hudson Valley farmers, or trucking used coffee grounds to a nearby farm for composting and fertilisation, or using napkins made from recycled products.

In a space that is barely 1,000 square feet on Main Street, Tarrytown, you can get one of the best espressos anywhere – Coffee Labs won second place in a nationwide espresso competition in 2013 – or an expertly brewed coffee, made from freshly roasted beans from partner farmers all over the world – and feel good about doing so.

It’s enough to make you want to stay and hang, which is just what Robert Welsch, a small-business owner in Tarrytown himself, does two or three times a day. Welsch savours the coffee, and the camaraderie, struck by how people seem to connect with one another they minute they walk through the door.

“It’s about the fine art of lingering – being in a place where you are not rushed out and where people are not looking beyond you,” Welsch said. “It’s about the experience, chatting awhile. We’re so lucky to have Coffee Labs in our town.”

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