The Bean: The little cafe that could

A menu showing The Bean’s caffeinated creations, painted sideshow-style by Nicolina.  Photos by Kathryn Adisman
A menu showing The Bean’s caffeinated creations, painted sideshow-style by Nicolina. Photos by Kathryn Adisman

BY KATHRYN ADISMAN   |  The Bean found itself in a David and Goliath story when giant Starbucks muscled the independent favorite out of its home in 2011. But the neighborhood coffee shop fought back. And therein lies a tale.

Ike Escava, The Bean’s original owner and now co-owner.
Ike Escava, The Bean’s original owner and now co-owner.

Ike Escava, owner of the original The Bean, at First Ave. and E. Third St., was at the end of his 10-year lease, negotiating with the landlord for an extension. One day, as Ike told it, “Somebody walked in and started measuring. The manager said, ‘Can I help you?’ ‘We’re here for the renovation.’ ‘Which renovation?’ ‘The Starbucks renovation.’”

A customer called The New York Times to report that a local shop was getting displaced by a chain.

“When Starbucks took over the location we had spent so much time building up,” Escava recalled, “it felt that the roof was caving in. It was scary. I was basically out of business.”

Luckily, a childhood friend of his, Sammy Cohen, came to the rescue. A wholesale clothing importer in Bangladesh, Cohen offered to become a working partner and had enough capital.

“We’ll open three shops!” Cohen declared.

And it came to pass.

They were able to open in a new space a block away, at Second Ave. and E. Third St., that was bigger and nicer — and before Starbucks opened in their old space. The new place sports a mural of the original shop by Jim Power, the Mosaic Man.

“The amazing part of the whole story,” said Escava, “was we opened up the Broadway shop across from the Strand by the end of August” — two weeks before they were evicted on First Ave.

He closed and went to work the next day and saw the same faces. Some people were just coming to show support.

“I felt like George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life!’ ” Escava recalled.

They opened on Second Ave. in December and then on First Ave. at E. Ninth St. in June 2012. Thus, in under a year, they grew an insulated presence in their neighborhood, the East Village.

The Bean's Second Ave. store.
The Bean’s Second Ave. store.

Escava thinks there’s a story in how supportive the neighborhood is.

“When Starbucks took our store, there’s an invisible picket line that people still don’t cross,” he said.

“The East Village is unique,” Cohen said. “Customers here are very loyal. They always root for the underdog.”

Escava, who described himself as a Sephardic Jew from Brooklyn, has deep roots in the neighborhood. He was previously a partner in a family-owned clothing business on the Lower East Side.

But, he said, “The world changed.” He found himself competing with chains. He decided to go into coffee because he loved the product and wanted to do something smaller on his own.

“I wasn’t planning to do partners,” Escava admitted. “I’m lucky Sammy came along.”

“Being in business with your best friend,” co-owner Cohen concurred, “it all boils down to trust.”

In April 2014, the team extended their reach into Williamsburg, where Escava said they’ve been accepted.

Typically, they look for a corner space with wraparound windows. Every location features an exposed brick wall, tin ceiling, cushioned benches and outdoor seating. The Bean also prides itself on promoting local artists and being part of the community.

With four stores and 60 employees, they might be a chain themselves. However, Escava said, “We consider ourselves a small shop — not cookie-cutter.”

Cheyenne, the shift lead at the E. Third St. street shop, agreed, saying, “This is a place about not fitting in.”

At the Broadway shop, Jordan, who formerly worked at Starbucks, said the difference is in the drinks and the vibe. Starbucks, he said, is “candy drinks.”

The Bean’s signature coffee drinks have names that pun on cultural icons — the NutElla Fitzgerald, “a fine romance”; the Frozen Mona Lisa, “a blended masterpiece”; the Great BamBeano, “a Ruthian blast.” The caffeinated creations’ names are painted on the wall behind the counter like sideshow posters by Nicolina, evoking a vintage East Village vibe.

“Contemporary throwback,” was how barista Tanya described it.

“The decor is part of the vibe,” explained Andrew, shift lead at the E. Ninth St. shop, who worked at Yaffa cafe on St. Mark’s Place until it closed last October.

“The customers make the store,” he said.

Beyond coffee (their house blend is from Gillies, in Brooklyn), The Bean’s menu includes 30 teas, 20 smoothies, an organic juice bar, and vegan, gluten-free and kosher food options. Finding a gluten-free bagel that tastes good isn’t easy, Cohen noted, adding, “We’re very picky.”

Escava sees the coffee ritual as an escape. And, ironically, in escaping from Starbucks, The Bean itself sprung to life again, stronger than ever.

“Starbucks created this niche,” he said. “Starbucks helped us have a rebirth. They did me the biggest favor of my life!”

The score so far: The total number of Starbucks stores in New York City: 283? The Bean: 4. And counting… .