Volume 19 • Issue 4 | June 9 - 15, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegal

Even on a rainy day, regulars fill the tables at Jack’s Stir Brewed Coffee.

Jack’s strange brew

How a tiny Village coffee shop created a big community, one that’s set to expand to Front Street soon

By ANNIE KARNI

Jack’s Stir Brewed Coffee and Jack Mazzola, the shop and its proprietor, share more than a moniker. The West Village coffee shop’s small town vibe, its down-to-earth decor, and unpretentious menu (coffee comes in “large” and “small,” not “venti” and “tall”) seem like the physical embodiment of Jack, whose life story has more twists and turns than the success story of his coffee shop. But before we talk Jack, let’s talk a little shop.

Jack’s Stir Brewed Coffee (138 West 10th Street) is a place where milk and Splenda drinkers learn what full-bodied coffee actually tastes like. The first certified organic coffee shop in Manhattan, it was awarded “Best Cup of Coffee” by New York Magazine in 2005, and voted seventh best coffee bar in the country by Food & Wine this year. The secret weapon is the stir brew coffeemaker invented and patented by Jack, which stirs the coffee grinds as it brews the coffee.

The shop will celebrate its third birthday in August (the man celebrated his 36th in May), and the tiny coffee house has been a community institution since day one. “It’s a real meeting place for folks in the neighborhood,” explains Sam Green, an eyeglass maker who has lived in the building adjacent to the shop for 30 years, and counts himself as a personal friend of Jack’s. “When the weather is nice, everyone spills outside onto the stoop.”

“99 percent of our customers are regulars,” says Jack. Forging a personal connection with the community is a priority for Jack, who lives above his shop like an old-time proprietor. He even founded the indie labels Fresh Ground Films and Fresh Ground Music to seek out and highlight local artistic talent, many of which perform at Jack’s. The 390-square-foot shop hosts film screenings on Thursday nights and live music on Tuesdays, packing in a crowd that would make a place twice as big feel full.

A second location, which Jack refers to as “the new adventure,” is scheduled to open at 222 Front Street (between Beekman and Peck Slip Streets) in August. The new shop will be substantially larger than the original Jack’s, but small enough to maintain the quintessential cozy “Jack” vibe. “There’ll be twice the amount of seating, and more room in the back. But it will still be charming and intimate,” says Jack.

Still, for many of the regulars, and for the entire staff, it is Jack Mazzola— not just his original “stir brew” method— that keeps them coming back for refills. To really understand why this is more than just another cutesy coffee joint, first you need to meet Jack. And if you hang out at his shop, that certainly won’t take long.

When Jack pops into his store for a fresh cup or just to say “hey,” you know it’s him, even if you’ve never met Jack before. Good-looking, with dark, glossy hair and a stubbly hint of a beard, his presence fills the shop like that of a politician or a movie star. He clasps hands and delivers friendly back pats as if any patron of Jack’s is automatically a friend.

But life hasn’t always been quite so relaxed for Jack as it looks today. Mazzola was a 16-year-old high school drop out when he left his home in the Jersey suburbs to follow an older girlfriend to Manhattan. For years, he floated aimlessly between dead-end bartending jobs, slightly more successful acting auditions, and, when ends didn’t meet in New York, his father’s auto body shop back home.

At 18, Jack landed a gig as the recurring character Todd on the popular soap “All My Children.” Still hungry for something more, he moved to the West Coast to pursue television. But while Jack remained fairly active on the small screen and the New York theater scene for the next 12 years, he was far from having “made it” in any real sense of the term. When his part was cut at the last minute from a big budget Bruce Willis flick, Jack was finally fed up with the “almost, but not quite” that defined his acting career.

It was around this time that a girlfriend lent Jack “A Cafecito Story,” the story of coffee, by Julia Alvarez, and something in Jack clicked. He wrote to Alvarez and her husband, and after months of correspondence, went to work on their coffee farm in the Dominican Republic. For the first time in a long while, Jack’s intuition told him that he had stumbled onto the right path.

Establishing relationships with workers and with the land, Jack became inspired to advocate for fair trade, organic coffee, a long-winded label that means farmers receive a fair price for their sustainably-grown beans. Already, the idea for “Jack’s” had begun to percolate.

In 2003, after months of persistent hounding, Jack convinced his co-op board that the magazine shop below his apartment was really Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee—only nobody knew it yet. Armed with photographs and drawings, and lacking anything resembling a business plan, he made the board see his vision. He opened up shop, doing much of the construction himself, and created and patented his special coffee maker, too, with the help of Ronnie Ricciardi, a mechanic friend of his father’s. From the start, there was no “almost, but not quite” to the success of the venture.

When Jack tells this part of his story — the caffeinated version — it all sounds comically propitious. He reads an inspiring book, then goes to live the story with the author. He believes in fair trade, then successfully pioneers a movement in a city saturated with conventional (some would say unethical) coffee shops. And when he decides he doesn’t like how coffee is brewed, he invents an alternative method. All this without a business or engineering degree or any experience running a store.

“I’ve always been a dreamer,” says Jack. “I didn’t take business 101. I use my own instinctive way to communicate with people—that’s it. I’ve learned everything from the old timers. That’s what makes it work.”

Respect for one’s elders is somewhat of a recurring theme for Jack, who grew up listening and learning from the Italians hanging out at the social club next to his father’s auto body shop. “I grew up in a community where everyone knew everyone, and I’ve always had an interest in the old-timers’ wisdom of life. I’m embracing this generation,” he says, pointing to the black and white photographs of the octogenarian crew of Jack’s regulars, which hang on the cafe’s exposed brick walls. “Nobody else embraces this generation! When they’re gone, this city will feel it, mark my words. They’re the ones who’ve got it going on. I learn more from talking to them than from reading a newspaper.”

Even though he describes himself as an “old-school visionary” who sees the world through a sepia-tinted lens, Jack isn’t driven only by nostalgia for the past. He possesses a Tom Cruise-like intensity for new ventures, and is excited to be pioneering a neighborhood in lower Manhattan with his new coffee shop. “I looked in the East Village, in the West Village [for a second location], and I felt like it was saturated. I think Front Street is the city’s last frontier.”

Jack’s only fear in expanding the brand is losing the personal connection that he lives for. “I have to be connected to everyone, from my help to my customers. I’m looking forward to spending time in both stores with new friends and old friends. That’s part of my job—socializing, and keeping everyone connected. I want people to know that there’s a Jack.”

Still, he’s the first to admit that he’s not the only one driving the success of his namesake store. “None of this is all me,” says Jack. “I’m the brains of the operation, but I really believe in the collaboration of the ‘family.’ ”

Almost all of his nine employees, a.k.a “the family,” have working with him since day one. “He’s like a big brother to us,” said Louisa Bennison, who works as night manager at Jack’s. “We’re an extremely close-knit group.”

“He’ll pop in to the store and put big tips in the jar, or buy us lunch,” said Katie Mullins, one of “the family’s” newest additions. It’s the trust and respect he gives to his employees that Jack credits for his business’ fast growth. “I wouldn’t feel like I was able to make this commitment to a second store if I didn’t have such a tight-knit group of employees,” said Jack.

A committed staff also gives Jack the freedom to pursue a little acting on the side. He recently landed a small role in a film starring Vanessa Redgrave, which begins shooting down south in September, a month after the new store opens. But leaving his new baby in the care of his family doesn’t make Jack anxious at all. “I trust the family,” he says. And when Jack exudes such confidence in his friends and his own intuition, it’s hard not to feel like you can trust them, too.


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