VINAY MENDA & ISSAM FREIHA
Cofounders, Blank Street Coffee
Jun 16, 2022
In New York, coffee shops are as ubiquitous as Chase Banks and Duane Reades. So, starting a coffee chain from scratch isn’t without its challenges, considering there are about 3,000 java joints here, according to at least one estimate.
Enter Blank Street Coffee, a Brooklyn-born company that has grown from a single coffee cart in Williamsburg to 30 locations dotted across the city. Cofounders Vinay Menda and Issam Freiha have a simple blueprint: Sell cheap, high-quality coffee using a cost-efficient model.
The duo, both immigrants in their twenties, met through mutual friends in college. Menda moved here from Dubai and attended New York University; Freiha, born in Beirut and raised in London, attended Columbia. Before Blank Street, the pair started a venture fund out of their dorm rooms that would become Reshape Ventures and invested in companies including Sweetgreen, lodging company Sonder, and Reddit.
In 2019, Menda and Freiha wanted to hang a shingle of their own. Blank Street was born after Menda and Freiha surveyed friends about their coffee-drinking habits. Turns out, people hate overpaying for coffee.
“What we kept hearing was, ‘I would rather have La Colombe or Blue Bottle but I end up going to Starbucks because it’s right there — and the app is good,” Menda told Grub Street last year. “These third-wave brands are too expensive over time. So how could we take these high- quality products and make them more convenient and cheaper?”
Customers aren’t greeted with an overwhelming menu and the shops don’t have dozens of tables to work from. Rather, the Blank Street model is to operate from small spaces, such as mobile carts or brick-and-mortar spots where they split the rent with other businesses. In Park Slope, Blank Street is tucked away in a store that also sells plants.
Prices are noticeably cheaper compared to the big chains that dominate the city. “We’re about 25 percent to 35 percent cheaper than Starbucks on espresso,” Menda recently told Bloomberg. The secret? Buying local beans and using state-of-the-art coffee- making machines that cut down on labor costs, all while paying baristas about $27 an hour with tips.
Blank Street raised more than $60 million from venture capitalists last year with plans to use the money for global domination. This year, the company aims to have 100 locations in New York City and will open its first in London, which Freiha says will be its second-biggest market.
Menda also hopes Blank Street can help immigrant street vendors in the future. “If you could help them get a stable income and level up in the economy — which is why they came here in the first place — that’s the main thing,” he said. “So we’ll try all the models, and what works best, we’ll scale.”