Flyby Investigates: Blank Street Coffee with Co-Founder Vinay Menda
The new Starbucks and Faro Café? Love them, but that’s old news. Blank Street, a New York based chain known for its clean aesthetic, efficiency, and its fern-green trademark color, will settle conveniently to the left of the Smith Center, providing easy access to a pick-me up. Flyby interviewed co-founder Vinay Menda to learn more about the chain and what Harvard students can expect of this new coffee shop. You’re welcome.
EKR: Could you introduce yourself and describe your path to founding Blank Street?
VM: I moved to New York in 2011 to go to undergrad at NYU. My co-founder was at Columbia; we became friends through the New York international student ecosystem. He’s Lebanese, grew up in London, I’m Indian and grew up in Dubai. We started working together in college, investing small amounts of money into consumer tech companies and started a tiny venture capital business at school. We graduated in 2015 and formalized that into a company called Reshape, where we invested in some incredible companies like Postmates, Sweetgreen, and Reddit. We did that for a while, but always wanted to operate and build a business in the intersection of the digital world and the real world.
My co-founder was obsessed with coffee — I was obsessed with consumer retail. The idea for Blank Street came to us in late 2019 after a bunch of research on the market and the future of the industry. So we decided to jump right in. We quit our investing jobs and, and started building Blank Street in May 2020, and we launched our first store in August 2020.
EKR: What differentiates Blank Street from the other coffee shops out there?
VM: If you look at the coffee landscape in Western Europe and in the U.S., it’s still dominated by, at least in the at-home category, by old school brands; second-wave coffee, and speciality coffee, which is the coffee graded above an 85 at the source, is generally sourced at higher altitudes and is very fragmented. It’s really expensive in terms of price umbrella and it's not as convenient as second-wave coffee. So, the big opportunity we saw, and the core value proposition is: can we take high-quality coffee, the same quality coffee you get at any specialty brand, but make it as convenient and as affordable? And to truly make it a daily routine to compete with the legacy brands, like the Starbucks and in Boston, the Dunkins of the world.
For non-coffee connoisseurs, second-wave coffee consists of places like Starbucks that emphasize coffee origin and communicate the high quality of their coffee, but mainly derive sales from the cafe experience.
ER: I’ve heard that Blank Street is all about efficiency, is that correct?
VM: Efficiency is important to the customer experience. I think customers don’t want to wait in line for 15 minutes to get their food or beverage. The reason people like waiting in line in markets like New York is because they want to get out of the office, they want to have a break from their day. But, I don’t think the experience of waiting for 15 minutes is the right experience. You want to get what you want very quickly and have 10, 15 minutes for yourself to do what you want versus being stuck in line. So, efficiency is very important. It’s more so just making the lives of our baristas as easy as possible so you can focus on the customer experience versus having to make 15-step drinks that they do at Starbucks.
It sounds like when you’re running to your 9 a.m. at 9:05 a.m., Blank Street’s got you covered.
EKR: Why did Blank Street open a location in Harvard Square?
VM: A few reasons. First of all, my chief of staff went to Harvard. When he joined the company, he was like, “I don’t care. I need a store at Harvard Square.” So that was one thing. Boston is a market that we really love for coffee, given the history of coffee; the cappuccino was invented there, and Dunkin’ has an incredible presence in Boston. In general, we do better in residential neighborhoods over commercial neighborhoods. The second is that universities and college campuses drink a lot of coffee. We do very well at NYU with younger generations and younger cohorts. So, given how busy people are in college and how they drink coffee 24 hours a day, it was important to have a location on campus.
EKR: I was about to say, we definitely consume a lot of coffee here at Harvard.
VM: I think Harvard might beat NYU. Maybe.
I think we’ll give NYU a run for their money.
EKR: What do Harvard students have to look forward to with this new Blank Street location?
VM: Harvard is known for a lot of legacy coffee chains, like Starbucks that is really big there. You also have some incredible cafes, like Bluestone Lane, that cater to a different type of customer, which is more of a sit down cafe. I think getting the quality you get from the brands you love, with the efficiency you get at a Starbucks is something you should definitely look forward to.
EKR: What do you recommend Harvard Students order from Blank Street, and what’s your personal go-to Blank Street order?
VM: If you can’t tell, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says “Mike’s Hot Honey” on it. One of our drinks is a Mike’s Hot Honey latte, so we add spicy honey to the latte. I love that one. I’m a crazy person — I drink cold brew all year round, and we have a Candy Cane Cold Brew that’s pretty incredible. It tastes like peppermint. Our signature drink in the UK, which is now on the menu here as well, is a Pistachio Latte. So our, our brand color is, what can we call it? Is it Fern Green? Is it Pistachio Green? It’s some type of green that looks like that Pistachio latte. I think that’s gonna be great as well.
During September move-in, I will personally be making Blank Street my first stop and trying the pistachio latte. Staying on campus this summer? You’ll be around for the opening :)