October 28, 2021

Thrive Insider

Exclusive stories of successful entrepreneurs

Caroline Bell, Co-Founder, and CEO of Café Grumpy

Who are you and what business did you start?

I am Caroline Bell, Co-Founder, and CEO of Café Grumpy. Café Grumpy was founded in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2005 and has since expanded to 11 cafe locations, an in-house coffee roastery, beverage company, and grocery/wholesale line. The cafe locations include a prime spot inside New York City’s historic Grand Central Terminal, a cafe in downtown Coral Gables and a coffee bar inside Whole Food Market’s new Hudson Yards location.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

When I was a child I used to set up storefronts and try to sell my parents and brothers things from drawings to flowers, so starting my own business has always been something I have wanted to do. I also have always loved coffee as it has been the facilitator for countless conversations and friendships. But it wasn’t until I was working in various office jobs that I realized how important coffee was to life in NYC. My husband and I really came up with the idea of starting a coffee shop together after complaining that we couldn’t find any good places to get coffee. We were like how hard could it be?! (It was definitely harder than we thought.)

Describe the process of launching the business.

Because the business started out with a stand-alone brick-and-mortar café, the process started by walking around and looking for a space to rent. When we originally started viewing spaces, landlords didn’t take me seriously when I said we wanted to open a coffee shop, and no one would get back to me. We ended up walking into a space in Greenpoint (near where I was living at the time) and the landlord happened to be in there doing some construction. He agreed to rent us the space on the spot! We didn’t have a business plan – just the idea that we wanted to serve good coffee in a welcoming environment.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

When we opened our first location back in 2005, there weren’t many specialty coffee shops in New York City and we quickly became a destination for coffee enthusiasts
as well as a place neighbors could come in
for a cup.

We always made it a point to create spaces unique to their neighborhoods – hanging work by local artists and hosting community events. As we grew and expanded, we worked to make sure that each location had its own unique feeling- but the coffee and the team were the common thread.

What has worked to attract and also retain customers has been just being ourselves. We are a place where you can come in for a great cup of coffee (or tea). Customers have gotten to know the names of different coffee producers we work with and ask for their coffee by name. They might visit one of our locations in the morning on their way to work and another in the afternoon – and at both places, they will have a favorite barista and a go-to drink.

With our beverage and grocery lines, more people now have access to our coffee even if they don’t live close to one of our locations. This, hand-in-hand with our online store and subscription service has helped us expand and reach people across the US. One of the most rewarding
things is when someone orders online after having had a good experience at one of our coffee shops while they were visiting New York.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Like most business owners these days, I am slightly concerned with the state of the world! During the pandemic, we focused on ramping up our grocery sales and were lucky enough to get some big orders from Whole Foods Markets which really allowed us to keep our roastery team together (as our cafe locations were closed). We also launched our ready-to-drink cold brew in Tetra Pak. This was a project we had planned for a while but had no idea we would be doing it under such strange circumstances. It was a risk but ended up being a good decision for us.


We were one of the many businesses to apply- but not receive funds from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. So, one major challenge has been trying to remain competitive with other coffee shops that have received funds. As staffing and supply costs increase, we need to make decisions quickly- but with the unknown of whether or not the fund will be replenished hanging over us, it has been very challenging.

As a company, we needed to make the decision to keep up with plans for slow steady growth while simultaneously looking critically at which of our existing locations might no longer be as busy based on declining commuter traffic, and other factors.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have learned so many things! From silly things like getting a good printer and two phone chargers to you can adapt and get through anything if you work hard.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Even though I was resistant at first, we use Slack for communication between our store managers and the roastery team. We were one of the beta Square users and continue to use them as our POS system. The pandemic also forced us to change from our paper punch cards to a virtual loyalty system. Like most businesses, we use Instagram to try to keep our customers updated with our new coffee launches. We have an order-ahead app, a wholesale ordering platform, and an app for our staff scheduling. We also recently started offering subscriptions to Headspace to our team. If there is something that will help us streamline – we are open to exploring and implementing it!

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I feel bad admitting this, but since starting the business, my time for reading has really decreased. That said, I try to keep up with news about coffee, the environment, and business through newsletters and articles. I find the most inspiration/influence comes from when I get to talk with other business owners and hear about their successes and struggles. My main resource is coffee – without cups and cups of coffee, this business wouldn’t be where it is today!

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Make sure you are prepared to work hard, be disappointed and keep going. Also, try to stay as healthy as possible because some days your business will take every ounce of strength that you have and more!

Where can we go to learn more?

Visit us at one or more of our many locations or on our website at www.cafegrumpy.com. You can also connect with our community on Instagram @cafegrumpy