UPDATE 6/14/16 – Joe Pantano is now our New Store Development Manager. Joe first joined Bluestone Lane as the General Manager Collective Cafe West Village, but has quickly progressed leveraging his engineering and finance background to manage our development and new store roll-out function.
Joe oversees all new store creation from concept feasibility analysis through to construction and pre-open execution.
Bluestone Lane Collective Cafe manager Joe Pantano took some time out of his busy schedule to answer questions for our most recent blog installment.
Read on for Joe’s interesting insights about the rapidly evolving NYC coffee scene, customer’s reaction to “the magic” and his favorite celebrity regulars. Joe also has some great advice on managing a successful cafe in the highly competitive hospitality world.
BL: Tell us about yourself (where are you from and how did you find yourself in New York and as GM Bluestone Lane Collective Cafe?)
JP: Perth, Western Australia. Ending up in NYC was not always ‘meant to be’ nor was it a childhood dream. After graduating from university in Perth I soon realized I wasn’t quite ready to commit to the 9-5 office lifestyle. After a conversation with a stranger at a bar suggesting I see the world, the restricted window of a J-1 visa and a cousin with a big idea – NYC was where I ended up. As for GM of the Collective Café, that seemed to be a combination of right place right time along with a passion for hospitality and a hunger to achieve.
What was your hospitality and coffee background in Australia?
My hospitality background started with waiting tables at my uncle’s restaurant in Inglewood, Perth. I was 18, couldn’t understand a word the chefs would say and loved Italian cuisine. Here I learned that wine has legs, I put on weight if I eat pasta on a daily basis and that good service attracts better tips. A few years later, towards the end of my studies I picked up a part time job at a local café in Applecross called Coffea. Owner Euro, taught me the fundamentals of coffee, from how to adjust the grind, proper tamping techniques, espresso characteristics and texturing milk. Apart from coffee, I started to appreciate the necessity of keeping ones composure during peak times of trade as well as the importance of ensuring a premium customer experience and product consistency.
What’s your general impression on the NYC coffee/cafe scene and do you think it’s changing? How does it compare from your hometown scene?
Since arriving in New York City, I have definitely come to appreciate that the coffee ritual is heavily dictated by culture. First impressions of the coffee scene in NYC were that regular brewed varieties were the most popular and quality espresso was not always readily available. In saying that, over the past 8 months, through better awareness of surrounds it’s evident that the coffee scene in NYC is definitely evolving. People are starting to appreciate the art of espresso and how it is different to standard brewed varieties of coffee.
How have you found managing Collective Cafe and what’s the most common feedback you get from customers when they come?
Managing the Collective Café definitely has its challenges. In every sense of the word it is a beast and a testament to its name – a collective effort in originally establishing the café as well as a collective effort in running it, especially during the summer months. Despite the challenges it definitely has its rewards. I feel a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at the end of a week, reflecting on the experience we were able to deliver to so many patrons. The most common customer feedback/question – Is everyone Australian that works here? Customers are definitely perplexed at how we can recruit predominantly all Australian staff. Despite the ‘accent’ barrier at times, customers definitely enjoy the unique experience offered by our staff.
Talk to us about the menu food & coffee – what are the most popular food and beverage dishes? Are there items where customers simply go “Holy Smokes Batman”?
The food menu offers a selection dishes that are clean, healthy and importantly, representative of menu items one would find in an Australian café. Similarly with our coffee menu, we maintain integrity by importing our beans from Melbourne based coffee roaster Niccolo as well as offering flat white, magic and long black coffees.
Holy Smokes Batman? The Avocado Smash. It would definitely be our signature dish, from the quality of each ingredient used, to the presentation and most importantly the taste – it’s a winner. As for coffee, once the customer is convinced they should try one, the magic is still the one that takes most by surprise. That first sip consistently evokes a reaction with many people commenting on the texture of the milk along with the optimum ratio of espresso to milk.
With fall at our doorstep, what’s in store at Collective Cafe?
Heading into fall, you can definitely expect to see slight tweaks across the food and beverage menu. Regarding food, traditional fall flavors will appear along with warmer alternatives for some of the existing dishes. Beverage wise, warm apple cider will be added to compliment the brisk afternoons that are just around the corner.
We read from the press about certain celebrities coming regular “locals” at Collective Cafe, who are your favorites and what do they typically love to eat & drink?
Malcolm Gladwell is definitely one of my favorites, we often chat about his existing publications as well as upcoming pieces he is working on. Malcolm is consistent with his breakfast – Yogurt, berries and honey whilst he alternates between an earl grey tea and a flat white. Although he has traveled to Australia prior, I like to think Bluestone Lane is responsible for his knowledge and appreciation of the flat white.
Additionally to Malcolm, Casey LaBow is definitely another local and rarely changes from an almond milk latte, 2 or 3 shots, honey or simple syrup. Casey definitely enjoys our coffee, she will buy 1kg Niccolo bags of coffee for use at home.
Top 3 tips in Managing a NYC cafe and or coffee program?
Customers/Patrons will always be the cornerstone of the service industry, so ensuring a premium customer experience is pivotal to success. My tip for ensuring this experience is trying to be as relatable to each customer as you can. Making the customer feel as though you understand them, in my experience, goes a long way in achieving a high level of customer satisfaction.
NYC is arguably the most dynamic and competitive city in the world, especially when it comes to hospitality. Before coming to New York I read a stat that if you ate at a different establishment for breakfast, lunch and dinner you could not exhaust all places in ones lifetime. My tip for ensuring success in such an environment is to constantly think outside the box and innovate ways to drive revenue and attract customers as the customer is definitely not limited on places to go. Making changes aesthetically as well as tweaking menu items, including specials and offering happy hours can all help in keeping the café fresh and attractive.
Staff could easily have been at the top of this list as they are the ones delivering the final product to the customer. Due to the tipping culture across the United States hourly base rates are quite low especially in comparison to Australia, therefore keeping staff motivated is pivotal to managing a successful café in the city. One way I have been able to achieve positive results with staff is when scheduling, trying to accommodate their commitments outside of work as best I can. This keeps staff focused whilst at work and also maintains a high level of respect within the relationship between each individual staff member and myself.