Sex, Drugs and Mojitos: The Coffee Shop Story

The week of its closing, bartenders, managers, servers and celebrities look back on the legendary hangout’s wildest moments.

Hemmed in by NYU dorms, Starbucks and a McDonalds, Coffee Shop, the restaurant and bar at 29 Union Square West opened by three models in 1990, always felt like it belonged to a different era. When it closes this month, it probably won’t be remembered most for its Brazilian-inspired food, or even for helping to popularize the Mojito and Caipirinha in New York. Along with its celebrity-friendly VIP seating policy, Coffee Shop will be best remembered for its front-of-house staff—mostly made up of really beautiful people. For some, a job at Coffee Shop was a source of pride, money and, possibly, fame.

In its heyday, during New York’s post-9/11 renaissance, Maya Rudolph and R&B singer Maxwell worked there. Laverne Cox worked the late shift and was remembered by her coworkers for singing and vogueing between the tables. Boyd Holbrook of “Narcos” and Daniel Newman of “The Walking Dead” tended bar together. “Nashville” star Chaley Rose worked as a server alongside “America’s Next Top Model” winner Naima Mora and her twin sister, Nia. And, until shortly before the recent New York Democratic primary upset that would make her a household name, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—“Sandy”—was a server. True to its fashionable reputation, the restaurant itself even made a cameo as a location in the film adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada”, and, of course, “Sex and the City.”

Many of the restaurant’s former staff now describe Coffee Shop as offering a loose surrogate family that affected them more profoundly than almost anything else throughout their 20s. Led and watched over by Carolyn Benitez, co-owner with an unimpeachable eye for that certain something in prospective employees; general manager Renee Rein, who held together a chaotic work environment at the high-volume, 23-hour restaurant and bar; and Julie da Rocha, the head maître d’ who controlled the notorious VIP seating system, the upscale diner and bar turned into one of the most exclusive nightspots in New York City in the early aughts.

Before it closes its doors for good, over a dozen former employees and customers to share their memories to better show what made Coffee Shop such a unique place in the city’s nightlife landscape. Included below are memories from Renee Rein, Coffee Shop’s former general manager for over a decade; Byata Dikker, a former late-night server who now works as a casting director and musician; Sara Harper, a former server, hostess and bartender who is now a nursing student; musician, DJ and model Alix Brown who worked as a server and maître d’; Colleen Longo, a former server turned jewelry designer; Robert West, a former Coffee Shop bartender who now works for the state government; photographer Jae Love, who worked as a cocktail waitress; Rael Petit, who worked as a bartender before moving on to his current position as the beverage director at the Williamsburg Hotel; Daniel Newman, a server and bartender for four years who is best-known for his role on “The Walking Dead”; Magdalena Kelly, a former bartender and server for six years who now works for a First Nations/indigenous non-profit in Canada and the actor and long-time customer Alan Cumming.

On the Hiring and Training Process:

Colleen Longo (server, 2002 to 2003): “I remember going there and the hostess told me to come back to meet Carolyn and to dress sexy. I’m pretty sure Carolyn could tell that I was lying to her and that I hadn’t been a server. She still hired me.”

Byata Dikker (server, 2000 to 2004): “My first night working there Laverne Cox trained me. She was a trip. The way that she trained me was: ‘Here, go ahead, go take a table.’ She kind of let me do my own thing.”

Renee Rein (general manager, 1999 to 2015): “Coffee Shop gets this bad reputation of only hiring pretty people that are models and actors, but that’s not true. Carolyn chose people for their personality. She hired you because she thought you had something, not because she thought you were going to be the next big model.”

Robert West (bartender, 1994 to 1996): “What I remember was Carolyn’s commitment to diversity. I worked with trans people in the 1990s. Every ethnic group, cultural heritage and orientation was represented.”

On the Celebrities:

Jae Love (cocktail waitress, 2001 to 2005): “I served Donald Trump. He came in with his then-new girlfriend, Melania. And everybody was like, ‘Donald Trump’s here!’ We all thought, ‘We’re gonna make a lot of money!’ So we were all waiting on him and being super nice and he got everything for free and he was pretty snappy about things. And then he didn’t leave us anything. The same day I served Wanda Sykes and a gentleman and their tab was $100 or something, and they tipped $100. So, I remember that: Trump tipped us nothing and he’s like a billionaire, but Wanda completely took care of me.”

Byata Dikker: “We would have Nas come in, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim—and I would ask ‘Can I rap for you?’ And I’d just rap for them at the table. I met Marley Marl at Coffee Shop. I didn’t really know who he was because I’m not an OG like him, but someone pointed him out and I came over and I said ‘Hey, can I rap for you?’ And I rapped for him and he signed me. My first song got on the radio when I worked at Coffee Shop.”

Alan Cumming (actor, Coffee Shop regular): “I liked it because it was quite open—everybody could see you. The feng shui of it was quite good for being famous because if you go into a place it’s good to get it out of the way that you’re there so that when you go to the loo everyone doesn’t just freak out. Once you were sat in your booth you were quite cut off from everything. They were very cool about ‘Oh you’re famous? I’ll get you in here and out of the way.’ And they didn’t make a fuss about it. A really classy joint is when they just do that and nobody knows.”

Rael Petit (busser, barista and bartender, 2003 to 2007): “There was one table—Table 7—that was assigned for celebrities. We would not seat anybody there unless it was someone we recognized.”

Alix Brown (server, maître d’, 2006 to 2009): “One morning I was working and the maître d’ was going to seat this guy in section two, which is the shitty section. I mean, it’s a good section if you’re working because that’s where all the non-attractive people sat, but in this case, he was seating Kevin Spacey. I was like: ‘Turn around, turn around right now!’ Because you could lose your job or get in big trouble for not knowing who somebody is.”

On the “Regular” Clientele:

Sara Harper (server, 2003 to 2008): “People tried to touch us sometimes and having security guards there was really helpful. It sucks that that was necessary, but it was comforting. I’ve been brushed off so many times in the service industry for telling a supervisor that a man has grabbed or touched me. They’re like ‘Oh, they’re just drunk’ or ‘Oh, they probably didn’t mean it.’ But at Coffee Shop there were no excuses.”

Abby Reiter (server, 2006 to 2010): “I remember a drunk guy getting really belligerent and trying to throw a chair through the window. I think he grabbed one of the waitresses’ arms and Ralph [late-night manager] really laid into him. I remember in that moment feeling that he really had our backs and I felt safe working at four in the morning at this place with a bunch of lunatics.”

Julie da Rocha (hostess, head maître d’, 2000 to 2013): “A bartender had somebody pull a butter knife on him once because he wouldn’t let them sit at a table that they wanted.”

Daniel Newman (server, bartender, 2000 to 2004): “This is the funny thing about Coffee Shop: It’s a diner. But that host job is like you’re a bouncer at the most popular club in New York. People would try to slip you $100 to be able to sit next to whatever celebrity was in one of the VIP booths.”

Magdalena Kelly (server, bartender, 2002 to 2008): “One of the princes of Dubai came in and he always had this entourage; he had three bodyguards with him and he would roll up in a Bentley and I sort of started to get to know them because they kept coming in and sitting in my section. Every time he would order a burger, which is twenty dollars, and then he would always leave me a $200 tip.”

On the Mojitos:

Rael Petit: “That was my first bartending job and I was making so many Caipirinhas and Mojitos that I have either nightmares or dreams about it. I remember going to bed at night and just thinking of tickets running up for Mojitos, Mojitos, Mojitos. It was during that whole muddling era, so you were muddling tons of cocktails at that time.”

Sara Harper: “I think the law in New York is that you can’t drink alcohol until after 12 but people wanted alcohol before that [the law changed in 2016]. People would get really upset that we wouldn’t serve them; [they’d] come in still awake from the night before, wrecked, and want a Mojito in the morning.”

On the Partying:

Jae Love: “The bathrooms were all private so I’m pretty sure a lot of stuff went on in them. One of the managers—I’m not going to say who—probably slept with about 100 women in that bathroom—customers and employees.”

Abby Reiter: “A waitress friend of mine was notorious for being drunk all the time, but in a very lovable way. Once she came into work at the last minute as a favor to someone and it was late afternoon so she was already drunk. And we walked into the World Room and she flashed us in front of a bunch of customers—just raised up her shirt…like ‘Hey you guys!’ Coffee Shop was the kind of place where you didn’t get fired for that kind of behavior. It just sort of added to the color of the place.”

Magdalena Kelly: “We went through a phase when somebody was making pot brownies. And all the servers were eating pot brownies when we were working. I had so many moments when I would forget what I was doing when I was at work. But I always made up for it because I would buy everybody dessert. I’ve probably spent a whole paycheck buying desserts for people.”

Abby Reiter: “There was a waitress there who accidentally turned in cocaine to one of the managers with her report. We were all going to go out to party afterwards at the end of the night. We all rushed back there in a panic thinking she was going to get fired and he just turned around and looked at her and said, ‘Well hey there, Miss Coffee Shop, your report’s all set, you can go now.’ And he kept it.”

On the Coffee Shop Legacy:

Julie da Rocha: “In 2001 my mother went into a coma. I was given custody of my two little brothers. I took a break from work and when I came back Carolyn gave me a significant raise, which helped me survive and take care of my little brothers. I don’t have a college degree; I have a high school diploma. So, to make that much money, it was a blessing in my life. My brother was able to go to private school and I was able to keep him from falling through the cracks. My little brother now works at Coffee Shop.”

Abby Reiter: “My struggles with drugs became a really big deal after Coffee Shop. I couldn’t keep a job and none of my friends wanted anything to do with me. I showed up at Coffee Shop in the middle of the night and Ralph sat at the bar with me and was totally non-judgmental—like a father figure without the ‘I’m disapointed in you’ vibe. He said, ‘What do you want to eat? It’s on me.’ He knew I had a cat and somebody had bought a case of cat food at the Union Square Petco and left it in the restaurant and he said, ‘Here, take this home to your cat.’ I left with a full stomach and food for my cat. He said ‘If you ever need anything you can show up here and talk to me.’ That was part of the whole Coffee Shop thing. It really was like a family.”

Sara Harper: “One of the reasons I wanted to live in New York was because I loved the Warhol Factory scene, and in some ways Coffee Shop was the closest working equivalent to that even though it wasn’t an artist studio. It was like everybody there was really beautiful and famous people were part of our day to day, but they were famous people eating breakfast with their kids or scooting into a corner and having some time with their food.”

Byata Dikker: “To this day I have this dream at least once a month where I walk into Coffee Shop and I’m like, ‘Hey, I want to work here again’ and Ralph is like, ‘Go ahead, put on your apron, let’s go.'”

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Nathaniel “Natty” Adams is a writer and custom suit maker currently living in Baltimore. He is the co-author of two books on mens style: I Am Dandy and We Are Dandy. He has just finished writing his first novel and is currently working on a biography of Charles Heidsieck.