There is nothing like a cup of coffee. At Matto Espresso, whose First Avenue and 53rd Street location opened around the start of the new year, the coffeeholic can get a large for just two dollars and fifty cents.
All of the items, in fact, from the chai lattes to the breakfast sandwiches, cost that amount. How the coffee chain, which started a few years back and now counts twenty locations throughout the city, has survived the coronavirus pandemic is anyone’s guess.
But it isn’t; as proven by baristas like Kenny, a genial Albanian whose smile belies a rare pride in his trade, Matto endures during these times because of its amiable staff. The fact that the company’s employees serve hundreds of customers a day, who might arch a brow at its low-price concept but then savor the strong yet smooth coffee, only ensures its success.
“About three-hundred to four-hundred,” Kenny says of the number of people he serves on a given day as he ends his twelve-hour shift on this last Friday of April. He must be kidding. More than a hundred people in a day, for a café that stands right next to a Starbucks, on a block flanked by other coffee shops, must be a joke. Yet Kenny’s telling the truth.
In the window above his head hangs a painting of what looks like a court jester trotting around town with his orange cat, the word “Matto” written underneath. “It means ‘crazy’ in Italian,” he says. “Like, crazy energy, crazy coffee.”
The Old Country
Italians don’t operate Matto, the mezuzah on the gold doorframe indicating the shop’s Jewish roots and the presence of company co-CEO, Moshe Maman, but as Kenny explains, its feel is the old country and the warmth that comes with that.
The two kingdoms, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, still reign and are fine enough. At Starbucks, the patron receives a grande as folk plays overhead while, at Dunkin’ Donuts, he/she gets a latte and a quick “Good Morning” from the barista.
There is more at Matto, though; not only the low prices but the care that accompanies them. On this early Friday evening, for example, a regular nods to Kenny before nestling in a backseat while, by the entrance, a young couple saunters in and peers at the different-sized containers. “Same price? Yeah, I’ll do a large,” the man says as Kenny turns and pours.
As with practically all cafes throughout New York, however, the coronavirus pandemic hurt the Matto Espresso. “We were closed for a year,” Kenny says. “One store didn’t survive, somewhere in Chelsea.”
The chain has managed to sustain itself due, as Kenny says, to the sheer “volume of people” it attracts. “We try to bring in new customers,” he says. “All the time, as much as I can, I try to get them to try it. Once they try it, they’re going to come back. That’s what I know.”
While he forms his own customer base, he admires the novelty of the wider Matto community. “Two-fifty for everything. He’s a genius,” he praises Maman.
Matto’s affordability shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of quality, though. The company’s coffee comes from a particular region in Italy about an hour north of Milan and, while not as ubiquitous as fellow Italy coffee manufacturer, Lavazza, the coffee is strong yet smooth enough to satisfy New Yorkers and even tourists.
“Matto serves a really rich dark roast that I find gives a chocolatey roundness to the palate,” writes one reviewer on Yelp. “My husband said the coffee would be about $3.50 back at home. The mint tea was decent, as well. It’s a small footprint but doesn’t need to be bigger,” writes another visiting from Royal Oak, Michigan.
“We Sell it Fresh”
In addition to coffee, Matto offers a variety of snacks which, as Kenny says, are baked nightly in West Harlem and then delivered before the store opens the next morning. “It’s fast, and we sell it fresh,” he says. “We make everything. When people come here, they don’t have to wait on a line. Everything goes smoothly.”
Formerly an employee of his family-run coffee shop for several years in his home country, Kenny knows how to run a place like Matto. “I don’t think that a person should wait more than two minutes for a coffee,” he says. Right then, Alejandro the jovial manager from the Madison diner right next door enters and Kenny hands him a pastry on the house. Smart business.
The proliferation of several locations over a few years, after all, is impressive. Unlike the growth of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream or Baked by Melissa cupcakes, Matto’s success doesn’t feel rushed or preening in any way. It is not so much that, everywhere one looks, there is a Matto as, “Oh, there’s one just a few blocks down. I’ll get a coffee and a sandwich for a few dollars.”
Its swirling black stream, the hot liquid that keeps it buzzing, coffee will always drive New York. Matto Espresso knows this and, with baristas like Kenny, opening at sunrise, they will fuel the city.