Walking into a Brooklyn coffee shop in the dead of summer can be a jarring experience—a quick jolt from the city streets into a too-curated landscape, with sharp changes in light, noise, and even air. Not the case at Sey Coffee, which opened in early August right along the border of Bushwick and Williamsburg: With its roll-up door aloft, the deep, airy space—think of a shoebox crossed with an airplane hangar—feels almost like a side alley to Grattan Street’s mellow bustle. Factor in three skylights, an array of plants, and an uncluttered design—built-in benches, scattered stools and tables, and a long, attention-grabbing bar—and you get a scene where light and breeze commingle amiably with the scents of the trade.
The shop’s opening highlights a transformative year for its owners, Lance Schnorenberg and Tobin Polk, who’ve been living and roasting at a nearby loft for the past few years under the name Lofted Coffee (with local clients including Greenpoint’s Búdin, Joe Pro Shop, and Soho cart service Peddler). Earlier this year, the two old friends (both are 33, and they even share a birth date) changed the company’s name to Sey, after a long legal battle with Lofty Coffee of San Diego. “We’d been dealing with the whole court thing for almost two years,” says Schnorenberg, displaying the weariness of both the legal hassle and having just opened a shop in New York City. (The new moniker reflects just how over the name thing they were: it’s simply “Yes” backward.)
Tobias Polk, Sey Coffee Operations Manager Aric Carroll, and Lance Schnorenberg
Opening a coffee shop together was an idea well before Lofted arose in the early 2010s, though. “It was the first thing we ever talked about back when—” Polk pauses and looks at Schnorenberg, who finishes the thought: “Back when we were dishwashing in cafes in Seattle. Being stupid and 22, the culture of coffee shops was far more appealing than the coffee itself.”
But when they landed in Brooklyn in 2010, the first space they found was more suited to roasting, so roast they did. When they eventually found a spot for a shop, Polk led the way on design (which included pouring the massive, L-shaped concrete bar top in one piece). “It was primarily me and some buddies,” he says. “We worked with an architect at the beginning to try to stir up some ideas but veered pretty immediately into our own designs. We mostly just wanted to work with natural elements: wood, concrete, plants.”
Schnorenberg says finding a single-story spot with skylights was crucial. “Natural light was a huge thing we wanted in the coffee shop experience—and a roll-up door, so we could have an open-faced front.”
Their objectives for the setting echo their approach to roasting itself. “We work with a handful of importers very closely, and try to select the highest-quality raw [beans] we can get our hands on,” says Schnorenberg, adding with laughter, “From there, we just try not to fuck it up.” Hospitality, too, is progressive here—Sey is a gratuity-included operation, meaning there’s no tip jar cluttering Polk’s sleek concrete counter.
Put simply, Sey’s coffee is excellent. At the bar, separate single origins are dedicated to espresso drinks (prepared on a La Marzocco Linea PB), batch brew (via Marco JET), single-brewed cups (courtesy of the Marco SP9), and iced coffee. Grinding is done on Mahlkönig EK43s and, for espressos, a PEAK. And while the neighborhood is packed with shops, do consider getting your coffee to stay: All drinks, not just espresso-based ones, are served on a flight board with a glass of sparkling water as a palate cleanser.
Daily pastries are supplied by Gus Reckel of Bushwick’s L’Imprimerie bakery, but don’t look for an expanded food program anytime soon—the next steps for Sey are all coffee-oriented. For starters, the owners are keen to bring the roasting operation from the loft to the shop’s back room. “We’ll move it here as soon as we can afford to,” says Polk, with a mix of fatigue and excitement. “We’re already outgrowing our [Probat] L12, so we don’t want to move it just to then upgrade it.”
The team also has plans to bring in a regular cast of rotating guest beans, bringing the multi-roaster cafe concept back to a city that’s largely strayed from that gambit during the last decade’s roasting boom. Look for them to begin featuring roasters The Coffee Collective and April Coffee Roasters, both out of Copenhagen, Denmark, along with Sweden’s Drop Coffee, in coming weeks.
And once operations are under one roof, the plan is to let customers see some of the work by replacing the back wall between shop and roastery with glass. A fluid continuation of the space from the neighborhood sidewalk all the way back to what in other cafes would be behind the scenes.
“Coffee’s hard,” says Schnorenberg, “because trying to get consumers connected to a product that’s grown far away can be pretty difficult. But transparency is a main factor behind what we do—having glass here will make the experience as integrated as possible.”
Mike Wolf is a New York City-based editor and dog person who’s written and/or finessed wordage for Time Out NY, the Village Voice, MTV News, the NY Post, and others.
Photos by Liz Clayton for Sprudge Media Network.