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The Black Cow: Coffee shop as Community Living-Room

An interview with Michael Grant, Founder and Owner of the Black Cow Coffee Company, Croton-on-Hudson, New York. 

The Black Cow coffee shop, in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, near where I live in the Hudson Valley, is an example of a local business that serves an irreplaceable purpose. It is truly inimitable and provides something that a Starbucks could never supplant.

While working there on my laptop (yes, I’m one of those people), I was blogging about e-commerce and its relationship to local businesses.  As I watched and listened and chatted with other customers, I thought long and hard about the true differences between this coffee shop and a corporate chain store. I wanted to learn more about this potent enterprise, and Michael Grant, the owner, kindly granted me this interview, last summer.

What were the Origins of the Black Cow?

Michael and his wife opened the first Black Cow in Croton in 1995. Then a second, in Pleasantville, NY and a third, at Phelps hospital in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

Michael’s inspirations included 17th century coffee houses in Europe.  And also, the general stores, that still exist in places like Vermont, where Michael has a second home. In these general stores, in the winter, there will be a wood-burning stove. And folks from the local area come in, to stock up on provisions.  But just as important, to congregate, share news and gossip, and just generally hang out. 

Michael’s social inspiration was the idea of creating a local gathering place, that is part of, and supports a community.  A place for great coffee, food and conversations.

Michael’s background, growing up?

Michael and his wife are both from Croton.  When they were growing up, Croton, amongst other things, was a railroad town.   Michael’s father was a conductor on the Metro North commuter line to New York City, for over 40 years.  He heard stories from his father seeing the same commuters every day on the train.  And the strong relationships he made with these bankers, lawyers, ad executives and the like.  I was reminded of the award-winning TV show, Mad Men, about the advertising world of 1960’s New York. There are several memorable train scenes, on the Metro North, where the train conductors interact with the commuters, setting up card tables, inhaling second-hand smoke and break up fights. 

Ok, so what happened next?

After attending College, Michael worked in construction in New York City but then moved to Boston to study architecture.  In Boston’s Harvard Square, he discovered a specialty coffee café, the Coffee Connection.  Founded in 1974 by George Howell, the Coffee Connection was one of the first specialized coffee businesses, in the U.S., that sold single-origin coffees. Single-origin coffee comes from a single area, with an identifiable taste, as contrasted with blended coffee that is less recognizable.

Howell grew the Coffee Connection to 24 stores before selling to Starbucks in ’94.

Michael decided architecture wasn’t for him, returned to New York, and re-connected with his now-wife.  Married and with a child, they grew bored in the City, and headed back to Croton to start a business. They brainstormed a few ideas and hit on a coffee shop.

They opened in ’95.  The day they opened they had $200 between them, and no furniture in their house as they’d used it all to furnish the Black Cow. 

On Single-Origin Coffee

Red bins holding fresh-roasted coffee beans

Michael told me in some detail about the single-origin coffee he sells.  I wasn’t able to catch everything; he is very focused on the quality of the coffee. Its roasted in the Croton store in a rotating roaster, and distributed around to the other stores. The roasted beans only hold their flavor for about two weeks and have to be used that quickly.  After two weeks, the best coffee in the world tastes like the worst coffee in the world.  It’s all about freshness. 

Staffing

Michael hires his baristas for their people-skills, primarily. He looks for people that enjoy people and can interact naturally with customers. He tends to favor musicians and other performers, for whom that comes naturally.

Connections and Community

Michael is all about generosity, connection, and providing a warm welcoming place for customers. 

Both as customers or as employees, Michael has watched many local kids grow up and still knows many of them as adults.  During our interview at the Croton store, a young woman stopped to say hello.  Michael has known her since she was three years old – now she’s in college.  The Black Cow was part of her life all the way through her school years.

The Black Cow has been a constant feature for local kids, growing up.  A safe place to hang out.

Michael knows, personally, hundreds of people in the community. Many come in for coffee every day. The key to success of his model, is the great coffee and creating warm connections to the community.  He is all about that personal interaction that makes people’s day. That might be a nice thing to say, but I’ve seen those interactions with him and his staff and with other customers.  It’s tangible.

Michael may have picked up some of this from his Dad, the train conductor, and his Mom, who was a local politician, known to many in the community.

At his father’s funeral, there was a two hour wait for people wanting to offer condolences to his mother. That was how many people his train-conductor father had connected with!

Like a community living-room

I’ve spent quite a few hours sitting in the Black Cow and working on my laptop.  I’ve struck up many conversations there with locals, and observed the customers coming and going.  In many ways it feels like the community’s extended living-room.

There’s a group that meets there regularly to write postcards to politicians.  They provide postcards, stamps and the addresses of local, state and federal representatives for Croton and New York for both parties.  You can sit down and write 5, 10 or 50 postcards, donate some money for the stamps, if you like, and they’ll mail them off.  It’s a political engagement group.

Other groups come in to play board games.

At lunch, throngs of kids come over from the local high-school to hang out.  Many of them don’t buy a drink; Michael doesn’t seem to mind.   

The political postcard-writing group

Read more about how online and brick and mortar retail are developing, in surprising ways, in my award-winning book “The Future of Omni-Channel Retail: Predictions in the Age of Amazon”.

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