One day way back in 2006, Mike Caswell spent several hours people-watching on the block of Orchard Street between Broome and Grand streets. The midtown real estate broker Caswell had hired to help him choose a site for the high-tech coffee shop he planned to open suggested a spot halfway down that block. At first, Caswell thought he was crazy.
“This street looked like a war zone,” Caswell says, sipping an Americano in a window seat of Roasting Plant, now in its fourth year. But his agent insisted that the Lower East Side was the place to find Caswell’s target demographic. So the industrial-engineer-turned-coffee-entrepreneur, who at that point had invested seven years developing his automated roasting and brewing system, agreed to check it out. From a table at 88 Orchard, one of the first new businesses to open on lower Orchard, he saw exactly the type of customers he believed would dig his 21st-century brewing system and premium product.
“We wanted to be in front of young, hip people looking for new and interesting experiences,” Caswell says. “We wanted to be in front of the cultural evangelists.”
Since the tiny storefront opened in April 2007, Caswell says, it has “wildly exceeded” his expectations.
“The purpose of this store was not to make money,” he says. “It was to test our equipment and our product. We wanted to be off the beaten path, because if we opened our doors and Javabot didn’t work, we didn’t want the whole world here taking pictures.”
Javabot is the system Caswell, 46, designed in his home basement while working as an executive at Starbucks. It uses vacuum-tube technology to draw beans from canisters into a roaster, shoot them to a grinder and then to the brewer—on demand, handling multiple custom orders at a time.
The sophisticated system had a few hiccups in its early days, Caswell cheerfully admits.
“The system would go down, and our early adopters would say ‘Javabot has pneumatic fever,’” he says.
The entertainment value of Javabot—it’s fun watching your beans travel through clear tubes and eventually wind up in your hand in distilled, liquid form—has drawn media attention from around the globe. The shop has been featured on a reality television show in Korea and a food show in Japan, in addition to plenty of exposure in local media.
All the attention has sparked much speculation about the future of the company, both in New York and abroad. Caswell says a web site in Amsterdam currently claims there’s a Roasting Plant coming to that city this fall.
The Amsterdam store is a myth, but a second Roasting Plant did open in the West Village two years ago, in a much bigger space. It has done pretty well despite the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which provided a major customer base, Caswell says. Additional Roasting Plants in other Manhattan neighborhoods are planned. Caswell is mum on details, but mentions Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen as two possibilities.
“There’s nothing specific in the works. We’re exploring different parts of the city; there is a lot of opportunity for us,” he says. “We’re not interested at all in becoming common. We want to grow in a way that makes sense.”
In the meantime, he’s relishing the payoff from the gamble he took putting his pilot project on a section of Orchard Street that was not yet cool.
“We’re thrilled to be here,” he says. “We love the fact that this neighborhood is about new beginnings. The more the LES cements its place as an economically rising area, the more companies are going to want to come here.”
When Roasting Plant opened, the Lower East Side’s turn toward trendiness was already under way to the north, but blocks south of Delancey remained impervious to change until much more recently. Caswell moved into an apartment above Roasting Plant in 2006 and lived there until November, when he moved to an apartment just a few doors down Orchard.
“I can’t claim to have had a crystal ball about how amazing this block has become,” he says. “But now I feel like we’re smack dab in the middle of the Gold Coast.”
He’s watched buildings on his one-block stretch of the LES fill up with writers, designers, musicians and artists—exactly the coffee drinkers he was seeking. At the same time, hip restaurants and boutique clothing stores have filled in the street-level spaces.
The coffee trend below Delancey continues: Another high-end coffee shop, Dora, opened just a few blocks away on East Broadway in November, and Brooklyn’s Café Grumpy is scheduled to arrive on Essex Street nearby later this year.
The effect of Roasting Plant on the neighborhood, in turn, can be seen in real estate ads, where nearby apartments have been marketed as “located near Roasting Plant.”
For Caswell, it all comes down to brewing perfect cups of coffee for his customers.
“I think a lot of folks come in here seeking the varietal beans, the premium blends,” Caswell says, explaining how his vision for Roasting Plant’s future dovetails with the recent explosion of the artisan java market citywide.
But maybe—just maybe—he’s overthinking just a tad.
“I totally disagree with him,” interrupts a customer who overhears a bit of the geek-speak. “People just come in here for a damn good cup of coffee.”