Finding New Haven’s cheapest cup of coffee

This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.

At $1 per cup, Bass Library’s Thain Family Café has the cheapest small coffee in New Haven. But this was not always going to be the case.

On the eve of the café’s opening in 2007, several Directed Studies students complained to their professor, Jane Levin, that they heard the new library was going to sport a “really expensive” café with Starbucks-esque prices. Levin told her husband, who took action — like only the president of the University could.

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“I exercised the presidential prerogative and ordered that the price of a small cup of coffee should be $1,” Richard Levin explained at the library’s 2007 dedication. “We really did dodge a bullet.”

The cafe — which had initially planned to charge $1.55 for a small coffee — has thrived ever since. But so too have New Haven’s many other coffee shops, even with higher prices.

Indeed, the relationship between Elis and caffeine is one of clear dependence — even in near-catastrophic financial times like these. Of the 11 Elm City coffee shops visited by the News, not a single one reported any drop in business. And in recent weeks, new shops have opened in what would appear to be an already saturated market, given that New Haven is home to more than 20 coffee shops.

As one economics professor put it, java-hungry Yale students are keeping the local coffee business alive.

As stock markets tumbled last year, New Haven business owners complained of dwindling business. Celso Marrichi, owner of Wall Street Pizza & Restaurant, said his business had definitely felt the effects of the recession.

“The prices of everything went up,” he said. “But our prices stayed the same, and even so, I’d say our business fell 10 percent, maybe 15 percent.”

Indeed, at 3 p.m., the restaurant had a steady trickle of customers, the remnants of a lackluster lunch period.

Immediately next door, however, Blue State Coffee had a long queue of customers waiting for service. The clientele were mostly Yale students who sat in the brightly lit shop, reading or studying.

Jessica Gardner, an employee at the café, said business had been great since Blue State’s soft opening two weeks ago.

“We’ve been really busy,” she said. “Every time a class gets out, we’d get a rush of people — which is great.”

And Blue State’s good business fortune was apparently shared by other coffee shops — of the 11 establishments surveyed in the three o’clock hour of Wednesday afternoon, not a single one had an empty table or idle employee.

The Publick Cup, a café on York Street, was one such establishment. Owner Tracy Jackson said her store has not felt the recession at all.

“We’ve only raised prices once,” she said. “But that was to counter rising prices of wholesale coffee.”

Another café, Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea, which has been open since 1991 on Church Street near Timothy Dwight College, seemed to be weathering the economic storm equally well.

Willoughby’s manager Bob Williams said although business has been good, the flow of business has slowed overall.

“We’re definitely fortunate so far,” he said. “But there’s been a little effect from the economy.”

The mediocre growth at the Willoughby’s Church Street location can perhaps be traced back to the fact that patrons of that store — because of distance from the main Yale campus — are a mix of Yale-affiliated customers and New Haven residents, Williams said. While the Church Street location enjoyed average business this year, the Feb. 1 opening of a new Willoughby’s in Yale’s Loria Center was so full that it was nearly impossible to find seats.

Indeed, the Yale bubble’s ability to shield cafés from the economic recession appears to end with the boundaries of the campus. Although Starbucks on High Street was filled with students poring over books or laptops, nationwide, the popular coffee chain closed 600 of its U.S. stores last year — 88 in California alone.

Furthermore, Starbucks announced in late January that it will stop continuously brewing decaffeinated coffee after noon. This additional push to cut costs, Starbucks says, will save approximately $400 million by September 2009.

Economics professor Fabian Lange said coffee usually constitutes such a small percentage of a person’s budget that an individual’s spending on coffee is hardly ever affected by prices or the health of the economy.

Lange pointed to the responsiveness of consumption to income, noting that at Yale and in New Haven at large, people’s incomes were not greatly affected by the recession. Plus, he added, because most students are employed on campus, they tended to not lose their jobs.

Loyalty appears to be another actor in the solvency of the coffee business. Of the 10 students interviewed in an informal poll, six said they frequented the coffee shop nearest to their residential college, and nine indicated they would not change their preferred location based on price. As one student put it: “If we’re only talking about 50 cents, then convenience is definitely more important to me.”

Other students are simply hooked on coffee. Emily Flaxman ’09 said that she could not get through a day without her cup of joe.

“It definitely adds up, and it’s not the cheapest little habit,” she said. “But I definitely couldn’t survive the day without my coffee fix.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    interesting article. your price chart isn't exactly accurate, because different stores have different sizes for small, medium, large. Jojo's small is actually 8 oz, where most stores are 12 (that's why it's cheaper on the chart).

    Also, some of those prices are pretax and others include tax.

  • Anonymous

    this article doesn't make any sense. it acts like it is comparing apples to apples, but each store has a different size cup and many don't include tax in their prices while others do.

  • Alum'81

    Are you kidding? The cheapest cup of coffee? Brew a big pot yourself and share it with others. Add chicory to make it go farther. You'll need it for the coming economy under the current government leadership.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for a good, well-reported story, Clark. I appreciate the shoe leather you put in to visit the 11 stores, rather than a "virtual story" while only sitting at your computer.
    As for the mild tempest in a coffee pot stirred up by some previous comments here, they are making distinctions that don't make much of a difference.
    Tax or no tax, a couple of ounces more or less -- none of them alter the relative prices/rankings ENOUGH (key word, notice I didn't say "at all.") to bother anyone who has a life and who most likely patronizes a shop for many reasons beyond the price of its smallest cup of brew.
    Keep up the good work!

  • Anonymous

    Oh, and @Alum'81 --
    What else are you drinking besides coffee, buddy?
    Your statement of the obvious, about a story that had nothing to do with home brewing, is of course just a thinly disguised political jab on a very nonpolitical story.
    There are plenty of stories around here where your jaundiced view fits right in.
    This ain't one of 'em.

  • Y09

    When will the YDN let its reporters tell a story without letting Professor X giving his mindless drivel.