No, not winter. Not Taylor Swift’s new album. Not Starbucks’ new holiday cup design.
Okay, fine, those are all coming, but we’re actually talking about Blank Street Coffee, the new coffee chain planting its flag in DC. The group, based out of Brooklyn, opened two locations this week—one in Dupont and one in Shaw—with plans for additional spots on 14th Street, at the Wharf, and in Georgetown. In all, the group aims to have a dozen locations in DC by the end of 2023, says co-founder Vinay Menda.
That might seem like a quick expansion, but that’s kind of the point behind Blank Street. The group, which Menda launched with co-founder Issam Freiha, only started in 2020, and it already has 42 locations in New York, with additional spots in Boston and London. The brand aims to fill a hole in the coffee world—artisanal drinks that are cheaper than at craft coffee spots (a small Blank Street latte starts at $3.50), made quicker than at a Starbucks, and taste better than, say, a cheap cup you’d find at a 7-Eleven.
“There were people who wanted to go to the specialty coffee [stores every day], but couldn’t afford to,” says Menda. “And our model would basically allow for the quality you get from these incredible brands we know and love to be cheaper.”
The group is able to do this by keeping its overhead low, says Menda. Each store has a small square footage, a limited menu, and automated Eversys coffee machines, which mean less baristas. (This also means employees spend more time interacting with customers and are paid more, says Menda). Blank Streets aren’t meant to be third spaces where people hang out with their laptops; they’re tailored to the grab-and-go set, and seating is minimal or nonexistent.
As with many things that enjoy a meteoric ascension, the brand has also generated some suspicion.
In New York, where Blank Street has already operated for two years, some residents paint it as another soulless corporation come to nibble at the coffers of mom-and-pop spots, or as an example of VC-funded tech bros taking over the world. (Blank Street has $67 million in funding and is backed by the likes of the Warby Parker and Allbirds founders and the real estate group Tishman Speyer.) Other New Yorkers are seemingly just weirded out that it’s popped up everywhere so quickly, like coffee mushrooms after a Series A rainstorm.
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Take, for instance, the New York-specific meme page Nolita Dirtbag likening Blank Street’s baristas to robots, New Yorkers comparing the group to the invasive lanternfly species, or a recent Gothamist story about the rise of pickleball, which quotes a parent who equates the omnipresent players to “the human version of Blank Street Coffee.” And the comments on an Instagram post linking to a New York Times article about the group are, well, as you’d expect. (“It’s literally Zillennial Dunkin,” reads one.)
blank street coffee is the lantern fly of businesses
— sam “pepsi hate account” vogel (@SamanthaVogel19) October 5, 2022
Went away for the weekend and now my apartment is a Blank Street Coffee??
— Patrick Monahan (@pattymo) October 2, 2022
Of course, it’s not unprecedented for people to launch a “Wake up, sheeple” discourse around big-name corporations, especially when it comes to an industry like coffee, where folks feel strongly about their local spots. And it’s certainly not unprecedented for a large coffee group to enter DC—take Blue Bottle or Philz. What is different, though, is that many of those large groups grew out of once-small coffee shops launched by baristas; instead, Blank Street was launched by “disruptors” with a national lens from the start.
All suspicion and naysaying aside, it seems like plenty of people are on the Blank Street train: Just bop around the #BlankStreet tag on TikTok, and you’ll see plenty of glowing coverage regarding its vibey aesthetics and drinks like an iced strawberry-and-cream latte. (It also probably doesn’t hurt that Blank Street has partnered with guaranteed hype generators like YouTube star Emma Chamberlain and Kendall Jenner’s 818 Tequila brand.)
”Obviously, I understand that New York is a skeptical place and people have their preferences,” says Menda when asked about some of the hubbub. “I try to block out noise and just focus on our customers and focus on quality. As long as we deliver good quality experiences, people will keep coming back.”
So—what will the ultimate verdict be in DC?
While it’s too early to tell for sure, it’s unlikely that the group will ever be able to win over the local scene’s devoted drinkers, says Qualia Coffee owner Joel Finkelstein. “An independent coffee shop can produce a product that is so much higher value to the customer than any of those players can, because they’re mass producing everything,” he says. “The customers who want what [spots like Blank Street] have to offer are not the customers who are coming to us.”
Or, as Menda diplomatically puts it: “I think there’s a market for everyone.”