Sweetleaf Cafe

With eclectic décor ranging from skateboards, paintbrushes and various antique furnishings, Sweetleaf Cafe is not a typical coffee house. Amongst the café’s wall hangings and other adornments, the numerous scales decorating the café reflect upon their devotion to both the art and science behind coffee brewing.

With two locations in Queens and one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Sweetleaf cafe offers New York City residents three locations to drink ethically imported and in-house roasted coffee, and taste freshly baked gluten-free and vegan goods. Sweetleaf Founder Rich Nieto trains his staff, such as Williamsburg barista Justin Schulz and baker Mary Gough, to create one-of-a-kind and baked from scratch products.

With a vintage feel and a sophisticated style, Sweetleaf doesn’t want to be just another local coffee shop, but a place where its customers can feel at home while experiencing their memorable coffee and teas.

Mood of Living Q&A:

Mood of Living: What makes your company unique?
Rich Nieto: Our obsessive attention to detail.

MoL: What is Sweetleaf’s mission?
Justin Schulz: As I understand it, it’s really trying to create a balanced flavor in every drink we do. Quality control across the board. And that’s why we went to roasting, so we can easily manipulate the coffee to that degree and make it taste the way we want it to taste and make it therapy. At the same time, maintaining inclusiveness with the customers.

MoL: Do you engage in any social entrepreneurship/community outreach/partnership?
RN: We try to stay very involved with the community. We try to be a part of local events such as being part of the Taste of LIC the last 6 years.
JS: Just a few months ago, we hosted a TNT (Thursday Night Throwdown) which features a lot of our competition. Every month we go to a different, local coffee shop and anyone who wants to come is invited, whether they work at a coffee shop or just make cappuccinos at home. Usually that cover charge goes to charity and there’s a cash prize for the winner. Last time, one of our guy’s won.

sweetleaf cafe nyc

MoL: When was the moment you realized the idea behind Sweetleaf could really work? 
RN: In 2008, I believed in the idea. By 2009, I fell completely in love with coffee but it wasn’t until 2010 that I felt this could actually provide for me and my family.

MoL: What are some of the challenges encountered at the beginning? What was the process in finding solutions? 
RN: There were a lot of financial challenges for the first few years. I had to work two other jobs to make enough money to support the business and my family. Coffee was my passion though, so I just kept pushing ahead and knew that it would pay off in the end.

MoL: What are some of the obstacles faced on a daily basis? And how do you overcome them?
JS: I think everyone has a pre-conception of what they’re going to get when they come into a coffee shop. Even what a cappuccino is in one place is going to be very different from another place, so trying to figure out exactly what the customer wants and giving it to them with minimal hassle, I think is a challenge every barista faces. And it’s a good challenge. Anything that’s worth doing is a good challenge.

sweetleaf cafe nyc

MoL: What is the future vision for the company? 
RN: My vision for the future is to continue to be more involved in everything related to coffee. We started roasting in 2014 and we plan on wholesaling our coffee in 2015. I see flying to [the] origin [of our coffee grounds] to buy coffee as part of the future. The more we can be involved, the better our coffee will be and, in turn, the more pleased our customers will be.

MoL: What imprint on the world does Sweetleaf wish to leave? Why?
RN: I think the more we promote specialty coffee on the retail end and the more involved we are in the buying process of coffees, the more we can help coffee farmers earn a better wage for their work. No one should be paying $1 for his or her coffee. When they do, you can be sure the farmers on the other end were not paid anywhere near a decent wage. We hope to be part of that change on a global level.

MoL: How are the customer’s senses engaged during his/her dining experience?
RN: You will see old world charm in the customer’s area. Behind the bar you will see state of the art equipment. What you hear should be a symphony of conversations. You will smell the best coffees the world has to offer which have been freshly roasted and expertly brewed for your tasting pleasure.
JS: The famous thing that chef’s say ‘the first taste is with the eyes.’ In terms of that, keeping this place looking good and clean — having a beautiful environment for people. In drink presentation, we do latte art, which shows that we’re taking extra care and people are already set up for an experience. Beyond that, the aroma of coffee is a thing we often consider when we are cupping coffees and evaluating them. The first thing we do is smell the dry, ground coffee. We smell it before we even taste it. And, obviously, the taste is important. It’s the last and probably most important thing.

MoL: Could you tell us a little about the training of your staff?
RN: Our staff are put through a rigorous training course. We have a unique way of maintaining quality control. We use scales to weigh everything we brew. We believe that weight is the most accurate way of measuring our coffee to assure consistency. We even pour every espresso shot onto a scale to make sure that we are hitting our target weights during service.

sweetleaf cafe nyc

MoL: What is your specialty/most popular drink? Food item? And What makes it special?
RN: For sure, it’s our Rocket Fuel. It’s a special blend we have created. We take the blend and mix it with chicory. We brew it in cold water for 18 hours. When it’s done, we mix it with Vermont Maple Syrup and milk. It’s delicious!
JS: Within the coffee community, we’re definitely known for espresso – transparency coffee that doesn’t taste too over-roasted, but still has douses of flavor. To a large number of our actual real customers we’re known for the Rocketfuel, the VooDoo Child and Strawberry Iced Tea… And they are friggin’ delicious.
Mary Gough: The brownie bites are amazing. They’re gluten-free and vegan. They’re so good. I’ll bake an extra one for myself.

MoL: What brings customers back to the café?
RN: The space is warm and inviting, the coffee is always good, the pastries are delicious and we’re nice to people. I would come back too!

MoL: Where do your coffee beans come from?
RN: We source our beans from all over the world. My favorites come from Colombia and Ethiopia.

MoL: How do you get ideas or inspiration for new flavors of bakery items or drinks?
RN: My obsessing about them all the time.
MG: We change our menu every month, or every other month. We always have gluten-free and vegan breads. It’s all from scratch, so it’s really just personal recipes. Even if we find a recipe, we sometimes change it. I really like the fact that we do the recipe tastings, so we can get a taste of what other chefs are making. Usually once a month, the kitchen manager will ask people to send in recipes. She’ll price it out and see if the food is feasible. And then for the tasting, we all come in and bake it all and we taste it and try it with a couple different toppings and assess. We just all decide what should be put on the menu.

MoL: Does the café have a playlist?  If not – what musical artists would you say epitomize your café? 
RN: I let the baristas decide which leads to a vast selection of music. I love walking in one hour and hearing Salsa, and walking in later to hear Heavy Metal. I think diversity is awesome.
JS: Everyone here has their own kind of taste in music. We use like Pandora or Spotify to create great radio stations. The café is named after a Black Sabbath song, so we play a decent amount of old school metal. It creates the mood.

Photos by Martin Scott Powell

Venue Details

Location            Date Opened
Queens: 10-93 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, NY2008
Williamsburg, Brooklyn: 135 Kent Ave, New York, NY2012
Queens: 4615 Center Blvd, Long Island City, NY2013

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sweetleaf cafe nyc

Photos by Martin Scott Powell