It’s another day at Koffee, a coffee shop at 104 Audubon St. The doorways and windows are adorned with a flashing string of red lights — but not just for the holidays: The lights are always there. A passing glance around the shop reveals the enormous diversity of New Haven, from musicians and businesspeople to students and artists.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Koffee, a shop that has become a fixture for New Haven residents and Yale students alike. Duncan Goodall ’95, who studied at the shop as an undergraduate, bought the store in 2002.
“My favorite thing [about the shop] is the random conversations that you have with people. And I’ve tried to design the space in such a manner where you have this sort of incidental contact with people. Because I like that,” Goodall said. “I think that is one of the attractions of the place, where you sit down on the couch, where you’re sitting next to someone, and you just start chatting with them. And you meet the most interesting, dynamic people in that way.”
The space that Koffee occupies today used to be a restaurant and bar known as the Foundry Cafe, which was established in the 1970s. Unbeknownst to many current patrons of the space, the bar was a major cocaine distribution point, Goodall said. Koffee’s website reports that, in 1990, the FBI raided the premises. The Hartford Courant reported that charges were filed in 1992 against the owners of the Foundry Cafe.
Meanwhile, in 1992, a dancer named Candace Balasi opened a coffee shop in the space where the Foundry Cafe used to be, called “Koffee on Audobon.” Goodall recalled that Koffee on Audubon opened during his sophomore year at Yale. He found out about the opening through word of mouth and thought, “I have to check this place out.” After that, the shop became his go-to study spot. Goodall recalled that the area was still “seedy” when he was a student. In 1994, The New York Times reported that a stabbing took place in the shop, in which several people were injured by a man in a fit of rage.
In 2000, under new ownership, Koffee expanded its service outside Audubon Street, and the owners of Koffee began to focus more on a second location, Koffee Too, which is now Blue State Coffee on York Street. With a focus on two different shops, the original Koffee location experienced a decline from its mid-1990s’ heyday, according to Goodall.
During this time, Goodall had just returned to New Haven from Buenos Aires, where he had been working as a consultant, and he saw the opportunity to run the coffee shop where he had studied as an undergraduate. He said he had grown tired of the “suit-and-tie, hundred-hours-a-week” lifestyle of consulting, and one day, when he was sitting in Koffee looking over a catalog of houses, he realized he could buy the shop.
“I found the owner, and I made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse,” Goodall said.
Asked about the significance of the 25th anniversary, Goodall said it was just another year for the shop.
“It’s not really about the business, it’s about the people here,” Goodall said in an interview. “I think of myself as a ‘caretaker,’ to help create and maintain this creative meeting space.”
Koffee has an unorthodox layout. It is open, but enough curtains and pillars separate different portions of the coffee shop that it affords a sense of privacy. There are couches, stools and chairs of all materials. The seating pattern is unique: Tables and wooden bars are arranged to form a navigable yet visually textured maze. Some of the tables have been custom designed to be narrower than in a standard restaurant, to encourage people to talk with one another, Goodall said.
The shop is abuzz with conversations of every sort in many languages, from talk about local politics and personal stories, to business transactions and scientific research. One of the “shop rules” posted in the store, after all, is to talk to your neighbor.
Dylan McDonnell, who works as a barista at Koffee, emphasized the warmth and friendly intimacy of the coffee shop.
“I enjoy that people smile and look at you … there’s more interpersonal connection,” McDonnell said. “I really enjoy getting to know people really well from every [walk of life]. Most people are very open.”
Goodall said the staff is always working to adjust the coffee shop’s atmosphere.
“We are in this perpetual state of renewal and trying new things,” Goodall said. “Whether it’s the cocktails or it’s the music, these things are constantly changing.”
Along with changing the shop’s ambiance, Goodall said he is currently experimenting with the store’s organizational structure. He said management is working to create a business that does not need him or a manager in its operations. As a result, there is currently no manager at Koffee: The administrative responsibilities of the position are delegated to each of the employees.
Benjamin van Buren, a regular customer, said his favorite thing about Koffee is the atmosphere.
“It’s sort of an ineffable thing. It’s unlike any other coffee shop in town. There’s a very warm color scene. There’s a cozy environment. … They have some pretty cool events at night,” van Buren said. “It’s a real kind of intimate and familiar vibe.”
Koffee holds Open Vinyl Night on Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Keshav Raghavan | firstname.lastname@example.org