The Rapidly Growing Coffee Chain That Only Looks Indie

Heads up Dunkin' and Starbucks, there's a new player in town and it's coming on strong. According to The New York Times, Blank Street Coffee began testing the waters in New York City in August 2020, when the innovative start-up opened its first location on Wythe Avenue in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. The set-up — a sea foam green, electric-powered coffee cart — was cute enough to catch the eye of passersby and lure them in to sample its wares. Which is exactly what the entrepreneurs behind the enterprise expected.

Issam Freiha and Vinay Menda had done their research. The Dubai natives went to the same high school before moving to New York to attend college. After graduation, they landed jobs at a venture capital fund, all while a bean of an idea was taking root. Familiar with New York's coffee culture, from big box chains to independent corner cafés, the friends identified a niche. Their concept? An automated, quick in-and-out mini café (averaging 400 to 500 square-feet, according to The Boston Globe) with minimal staff set up to serve good enough coffee.

"We don't need to be the most amazing cup of coffee you've ever had," Freiha told The New York Times. "We want to be the really good cup of coffee that you drink twice a day, every day." Two years later, Blank Street operates a growing roster of 40 locations and is spreading outside New York City with two shops (and more on the way) in Boston and in London.

Controversy is brewing

While Blank Street Coffee has developed a loyal following, there are naysayers in the mix. According to The New York Times, pushback stems from the company's funding sources. Last year, the company secured $25 million in Series A funding (via Nation's Restaurant News). Major investors include venture capital companies General Catalyst and Tiger Global.

Some coffee drinkers that are loyal to their neighborhood cafes claim that's just not fair, citing instances like Blank Street Coffee's decision to go head-to-head with established local coffee shops (via The New York Times). "They opened right across the street from Everyman [a neighborhood shop]," a resident of Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood told the outlet. "That's not a coincidence."

Resistance increased last spring when Menda claimed Blank Street Coffee was filling a need in Williamsburg, while suggesting the independent coffee shop-heavy neighborhood didn't offer residents many options. Neighborhood loyalists, including a TikToker, took to social media to refute the claim.

In any case, pushback doesn't appear to have slowed Blank Street Coffee's growth, but it did prompt Freiha and Menda to rethink their message (via The New York Times). Following the Williamsburg uproar, the company changed its mission statement from "reinvent local commerce to better serve our customers and neighborhoods," to "great coffee should be priced and located in a way that makes it part of your every day."