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Art of Business: The Grounds Keepers

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:18 pm
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In 2001, while living on Staten Island, business partners Jim Svetz and Brian Woodward weren’t interested in opening a little coffeehouse in a trendy neighborhood. They wanted a large place, near home, with plenty of seating where customers could “just kick back and relax,” says Svetz.
At the time, they would have fallen off their chairs if anyone suggested that they might open a second Muddy Cup coffeehouse, or a third. Yet by this summer, there will be nine Muddy Cups in New York state. Most have been embraced by the communities in which they have been established. One, in New Paltz, has stirred up some controversy.


When the partners established their first coffeehouse downstate, says Svetz, “I guess I was creating something for myself. I didn’t really research a lot. I wasn’t trying to copy Starbucks or anybody else. We just created our own vision. Of course, we didn’t invent coffeehouses. Neither did Starbucks. Coffeehouses have been around for hundreds of years. We put our own comfort level to it.”
In June 2001, Svetz had been laid off as marketing director of a dot-com that had required him to fly 125,000 miles per year and to commute three times a week to Manhattan from his home on Staten Island. While unemployed, and wondering what to do next, he remembered a vacant building in his neighborhood. “The North Shore of Staten Island is very old, and it was economically depressed. There was an old bakery building that I walked by every day. It had been vacant for at least five years. It was really cool inside. It had beautiful mosaic tile floors, tin ceilings…I convinced the owner to rent it to me.”

On September 1, 2001, after extensive renovations, the Muddy Cup opened. Ten days later, the Twin Towers were attacked. Svetz and Woodward had already put a TV and Xbox video game console in to keep themselves entertained during slow periods.
“Typically, you don’t have a TV in a coffeehouse,” says Svetz, “because nobody wants to deal with the outside world. But, since we had just opened up, we figured that we’d be there fifteen hours a day, we’d have no customers, and we’d be really bored. We put all of the comforts of home in so we could sit there all day.”
By the afternoon of 9/11, according to Svetz, “the place was packed. We brought more TVs in. And so for two weeks everybody in the neighborhood came to us as the central place to get information and to talk. We became a part of the community after that.”
Svetz credits opening the Staten Island Muddy Cup as his education into economic development. “Because we opened there,” he says, “and because we had events and were open at night, the street started coming back to life.” He and Woodward became intrigued by the idea of purchasing a bar nearby. “The bar had been there for seventy years,” says Svetz. “So we made a deal and took over the bar from the brothers [who owned it]. We changed the name to Martini Red. It became a hip little martini bar that we did as an adjunct to the coffeehouse. Later, we sold it off. To this day, Martini Red is still there. The Muddy Cup is still there. And there are more restaurants and all kinds [of places] on that little street.”
The opening of the second Muddy Cup, in Hudson, occurred almost by accident. At the suggestion of friends, Svetz had been thinking about purchasing an inexpensive second home outside of New York City. “I didn’t really know much about upstate,” he says, “but I thought it would be nice to get away for the weekend.”


During the time Svetz was researching real estate, he says, “Customers of ours from Staten Island had moved to Hudson. They kept telling us, ‘You’ve got to open in Hudson. You have to come up to Hudson. It’s great. It’s up-and-coming. There’s no coffeehouse.’ As soon as we pulled onto Warren Street, we just fell in love with it. It was beautiful. It was pretty much already into its renaissance.”
Svetz and Woodward leased a space for the Hudson Muddy Cup in an apartment building constructed in 1890. With the owner’s consent, they removed the interior walls, save those in the living room. “The original fireplaces are all there,” says Svetz, “and the original tub is still in the bathroom.” The Hudson location opened in March 2004.
Svetz and Woodward weren’t sure how running two coffeehouses almost 150 miles apart would work. “At first, it was just another place to go visit,” says Svetz. “We thought: ‘Okay, we can get away from the city.’ It was nice. It was like an excuse. But then the brand started attaching itself to the Muddy Cup. People started hearing about it and liking it. People were coming into the Hudson store from all over and saying, ‘We want a Muddy Cup in Kingston.’‘We need a Muddy Cup in Catskill.’ We started getting contacted by cities, economic development agencies, and building owners.”
According to Svetz, “When we opened the first stores, we had the idea that we always wanted each to be a large place with lots of seating. That was key for us. We’ve been going to areas that are up-and-coming, or economically depressed, so we can get a large space and become an anchor, become a part or catalyst for economic development or change.”

In the past three years, Muddy Cup coffeehouses have opened in Hudson, Albany, Beacon, Catskill, and Kingston. By summer, there will be locations in Poughkeepsie, Schenectady, and New Paltz. To keep costs down, Svetz and Woodward do most of the gutting and renovating themselves, and they often hire Muddy Cup staff members to help out. Says Svetz, “When we opened the first Muddy Cup, we had no money, so we had to do everything ourselves. We had to improvise. That frugal mentality helped develop the theme of who we are. We don’t want to lose that.”
Doing everything themselves also keeps things fun. At the Kingston store, in addition to helping out with the renovation, Woodward stenciled the painted concrete floors. Svetz hunted down the “cool used furniture”—the booths, the mismatched chairs, the funky tables, and the geometric lamps from the middle of the last century.
As for his 30 or so employees, Svetz declines to call them baristas. He refers to them as staff, or staffers. Svetz and Woodward do not have offices, although they have a bookkeeper “who sits in a little office in Hudson,” according to Svetz. One staff member purchases the coffee for all of the stores. Svetz says, “We didn’t want to use special language for customers to use when ordering. We wanted to keep everything simple. If you look at our menu, everything is completely spelled out. There’s no weird stuff. We have basically one size of really good, house-blend coffee.”
Besides basic coffee choices (house, dark roast, double espresso, cafe au lait, Americano, macchiato, latte, and cappuccino), the Muddy Cup offers a wide selection of flavorings, from apple to toasted walnut. Other beverages include tea (more than a dozen kinds), various hot chocolates (regular, white, and flavored), and “special” drinks, such as the Oreo cappuccino and enhanced lattes (white chocolate and caramel, mint chocolate, chocolate coconut, apple cinnamon, eggnog, and Almond Joy). Nine kinds of fruit smoothies are offered, along with over a dozen flavors of Italian soda.
Each store also carries baked goods, some of which are prepared by local companies. Taste Budd’s of Red Hook has created a special “Mud Bar” confection for the Kingston location.
On weekends, each Muddy Cup location features live music, and on Mondays, open mikes. “Open mikes have always been the cornerstone of our entertainment,” says Svetz. “The open mike in Staten Island has been going on for six years. The open mike in Albany is probably the number one open mike in the city.” Musicians who have played at Muddy Cup coffeehouses include Marshall Crenshaw, B.J. Thomas, and Graham Parker.
Svetz calls the growth of his enterprise “organic.” He says, “People ask us to grow. I still have cities calling us. I still have economic development agencies and building owners who have requested us, who want to give me tours of their town, and who would like us to open up and be a part of their economic renaissance. We are looking at places like that. So if the right city or town, the right building, the right space, and the right person come along, we may open another one.”
The only controversy, so far, has been the opening of a Muddy Cup in New Paltz. The college town is home to a number of caffeine retailers, including The Bakery, the village’s longstanding pastry shop, a Starbucks, and 60 Main, a small coffeehouse that helps support the New Paltz Community Collective, a nonprofit events space and art gallery. Supporters of 60 Main have objected to Svetz opening a Muddy Cup next door. However, when Tobias Devor, the proprietor of 60 Main, was contacted for this article, he said, “We’d like to welcome Jim and the Muddy Cup to the neighborhood, and we look forward to working with him.”
Take a virtual tour of all the Muddy Cup locations at www.muddycup.com.

Muddy Cup Owners Jim Svetz (left) and Brian Woodward in their Broadway location in Kingston. - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Muddy Cup Owners Jim Svetz (left) and Brian Woodward in their Broadway location in Kingston.
Exposed, partially painted red brick walls, worn rugs, and eclectic, comfortably worn chairs and tables fill the Muddy Cup in Beacon. Each Muddy Cup location also has an antique glass-and-wood pastry display case. Renovations are extensive, and often involve blasting through walls and lifting ceilings. - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Exposed, partially painted red brick walls, worn rugs, and eclectic, comfortably worn chairs and tables fill the Muddy Cup in Beacon. Each Muddy Cup location also has an antique glass-and-wood pastry display case. Renovations are extensive, and often involve blasting through walls and lifting ceilings.

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