Harlem Loses More Coffee Houses Because Of The COVID Crisis And More

In January 2017, Chris and Claire Saphire opened a small neighborhood coffee shop on Central Park North near Lenox Avenue (bet. 111th and 110th Streets), in what was then an under-served area of Harlem.

“The only other coffee shop at the time when we opened was Dunkin’ Donuts,” Chris, co-owner of Little Bean Coffee, recalled.


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Nearly four years later, the neighborhood is buzzing with a burgeoning restaurant scene and a number of chic cafes. But Little Bean will no longer be one of them — it’s one of two Harlem coffee shops forced to close its doors this week, buckling under the weight of the pandemic.

Nearly four years later, the neighborhood is buzzing with a burgeoning restaurant scene and a number of chic cafes. But Little Bean will no longer be one of them — it’s one of two Harlem coffee shops forced to close its doors this week, buckling under the weight of the pandemic.

Little Bean will sell its last drinks on Sunday, while Shuteye Coffee, a fixture on 116th Street, is closing down Saturday, its owners announced on Instagram. (Harlem Bespoke first reported Little Bean’s closure.) The pandemic has already shuttered several other cafes in the neighborhood, including Caféine and Double Dutch Espresso on Amsterdam Avenue.

The Saphires, who are married, had a clear vision for what they wanted their shop to be: sophisticated but family-friendly, stocked with books and games that could keep kids busy while their parents worked. That goal took on a new urgency within two weeks of the shop’s opening when Chris and Claire found out they were having a child of their own.”It’s been amazing having our little boy grow up in a New York City cafe — on the edge of the world, basically,” Chris said of their son, Theo.

A group of regular customers formed quickly, enticed by Little Bean’s offerings — including Chris’s signature triple-strength cold brew, which won second place in a nationwide competition last year.

Some Harlemites were initially wary of the cafe and what it might portend for the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood, but the Saphires won them over in the end, Chris said.

“We live right down the street, we’re members of the community, we did toy and clothing drives for Christmas,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to show people that we were here for the good of the community.”

The couple built up a healthy business, Chris said — then the pandemic hit.

Most of Little Bean’s revenue came from morning commuters heading to the nearby 2-3 subway stop, as well as tourists who’d stop by on the weekends as they strolled Central Park. Both groups disappeared this spring when the virus arrived.

Unwilling to put their employees at risk, Chris and Claire ran the shop themselves for a few weeks before deciding to close down entirely from April through June. Since reopening over the summer, Little Bean has only made about 30 percent of its typical monthly revenue.

“The standard neighborhood customer who comes to you every day, while they’re obviously the lifeblood of the business, that’s just not enough people to keep up with Manhattan rent,”

“The standard neighborhood customer who comes to you every day, while they’re obviously the lifeblood of the business, that’s just not enough people to keep up with Manhattan rent,” Chris said.

As the couple strains to negotiate an exit with a less-than-forgiving landlord, Chris remains frustrated that the city and state didn’t do more to protect small businesses.

As the couple strains to negotiate an exit with a less-than-forgiving landlord, Chris remains frustrated that the city and state didn’t do more to protect small businesses. The state’s eviction moratorium, he noted, didn’t help much as the shop faced months of unfulfillable rent payments and fell deeper into debt.

Next week, Chris and Claire plan to convert the shop into a temporary marketplace, selling off their remaining coffee beans and cold brew concentrates. Then, they will pack up their own belongings — fallout from the shop’s closure is forcing them to leave Harlem altogether to stay with family in New Jersey.

Next week, Chris and Claire plan to convert the shop into a temporary marketplace, selling off their remaining coffee beans and cold brew concentrates. Then, they will pack up their own belongings — fallout from the shop’s closure is forcing them to leave Harlem altogether to stay with family in New Jersey.

The Saphires plan to keep their coffee-making equipment in hopes of starting a new shop one day. In the meantime, though, they are mourning the loss of what they had.

Read more about the closing of the coffee house here.

Photo credit: Little Bean Coffee NYC

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