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🦊 Beyond the Bean
#88 — Three ingredients to a magical experience: identity, integrity, and connection.
I’m playing catchup after some health issues took me out last week. I was hit with a perfect storm of overwhelm, followed by a bout of sickness. It’s taken a little while to pull myself back up, but thankfully I’m finally feeling like a human again. So here I am. Still writing.
In the spirit of catching up, I decided it’s time to finally write a piece that has been stuck in my drafts since April. Today’s edition is about an incredible experience I had at a coffee shop called Voyager Espresso in New York.
The coffee was fantastic, but that’s not why I’m writing about it. It was the experience that made it magical.
Great coffee is increasingly common these days. Since the third-wave coffee movement took hold, there’s been an explosion of coffee shops serving some of the best coffee from around the world. As high-quality coffee has become more accessible, great service has become a differentiating factor among coffee shops.
Creators and builders can learn a lot from well-crafted service experiences. The creativity we apply in presenting our products help us stand out from the crowd. With that lens in mind, I’ll explore the elements that made that coffee experience stick with me until now, motivating me to write about it so many months later.
I’ll focus my exploration on three aspects that stood out: identity, connection, and integrity.
Let’s take a look beyond the bean, shall we?
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Signaling an Identity
I was back in New York in April for a birthday trip. I lived there for a couple years and fell in love with the city, so going back is always a treat for me. Before we even got on the plane, my wife had curated a list of restaurants and coffee shops for us to check out.The morning after we arrived, she checked the list and mentioned Voyager Coffee was just a couple blocks away from our hotel. We stepped and began our coffee hunt.
The first thing I learned about Voyager was that it’s tricky to find. While the owners are probably not enamored with that aspect of the location, I think it’s part of the appeal of the place. The shop is buried underground in a subway station, down an alley which Google Maps refuses to help you find. By the time I finally found it, I felt like I had entered a different world.
I was underground and in a hurry. I had nothing but my destination in mind; all else was invisible. In that moment, I was a New York commuter.
Finally, I found my station. Its banner offered a unique welcome: “Support your underground caffeine dealer.” It signals for a certain kind of crowd—one that wants their coffee served with a sense of humor. I walked in smiling.
Voyager’s location was the packaging on its product; the landing page on its website. It reminded me of how much we can signal to others before we reveal the product. As Derek Sivers notes in his book Your Music and Your People:
“Art doesn’t end at the edge of the canvas. The way you present your art, and what people know about it, completely changes how they perceive it … Marketing is the final extension of your art.”
Whatever you’re making inside the shop, always consider the front door. It’s an invitation to others to step in the door and transform who they are.
Coffee as Connection
I looked around and inhaled the aroma. I was greeted right away. It reminded me of the welcome I received whenever I entered certain restaurants in Japan, greeted with shouts of “Irasshaimas!” He told me his name was Will, asked how my day was, and told me about his. We talked more and more, until I learned he was the owner of the place, alongside his partner Angery.
After I had my fill of conversation and coffee, I left. But my mind was still stuck there. The next morning, I went back. On a whim, I asked Will if he’d sit down to chat with me. I wanted to understand the story behind the place. He generously agreed, and I returned the next morning. His energy prompted this piece, and our conversation informed it.
As I spoke to Will, I overheard many conversations the staff had with customers. There was no hint of rush or forced niceness. In the voices of the customers, I could sense relief. It was a stark contrast, I suspect, from the bustle of crowded streets they swam through like invisible fish in the sea.
“What I’m selling is a slow down, a conversation, a moment that wakes you up,” Will began. “I care about people, not just coffee. You can smile at someone on the subway and change their life.”
With the growth of delivery services, we’ve lost a lot of the human touch of food experiences. Even when you do go in-person, the service you find might not be what you remembered from pre-pandemic times. Heightened pressure on reduced staff—agitated by high inflation and stagnant wages—has limited the luxury of lengthy service interactions. Workers are expected to take an order and get on with it, competing in efficiency with a website or app.
But human service offers something that cannot be replicated by technology, no matter how efficient—human connection.
We’re spoiled with speed, but starved of connection. We must embrace the efficiency of technology, but also preserve the power of human connection.
Serving with Integrity
The more I asked about Will, the more he spoke about others. In particular, he emphasized the importance of recognizing and giving credit to the source: coffee growers.
“There are growers that dedicate their life to this, and it’s worth putting their work up front. There’s a special place in Ethiopia growing the beans we use,” he said. “I feel responsible.”
When we think about the growth of coffee, we often focus on the brands. Growers rarely get recognized, particularly when it comes to recognizing the origins of coffee—from Ethiopia to Yemen and beyond. Coffee has exploded in growth and profits around the world, but growers do not reap those benefits.
“There’s people who burn their days under the sun, and they’re getting the short end of the stick,” he said. “I can’t do much, but I can do this.”
The menu at Voyager includes information about where the coffee is grown. Increasingly, we’re seeing a level of recognition in coffee places to highlight the origins. Information doesn’t solve the imbalance, but every solution begins with awareness. It was clear that Will and Angery prioritize operating with integrity, even if that comes at an added cost. Supporting them felt like I was supporting the growers as well.
Voyager’s identity, connection, and integrity elevated excellent coffee into something I wouldn’t forget. They’re a rare breed in the way they serve a cocktail of service ingredients beyond the product itself. As a creator who cares about craft, their work is an inspiration. As a consumer who loves coffee, I can’t wait to go back for another cup.
If you’re in New York and curious for a taste of their coffee, or another bite of their story, giveVoyager a visit. And tell ‘em I sent ya!
Thank you to Will for generously sharing his time to chat with me, and to Angery for covering for him while he did. Thanks also to my friend Drew Austin, who listened to my rambles about my experience and helped me sort out what I really wanted to say.