It’s always wonderful to see someone who is great at his job. For years, one of my favorite examples was Pedro Morales, the second-shift waiter at the Cobble Hill Coffee Shop in Brooklyn.
No matter how nuts the place got, Mr. Morales was smiling and calm, handling the crush with aplomb. He always remembered how you took your coffee. When he vanished this summer, the place wasn’t the same. I was thrilled, then, when a fellow fan told me she’d spotted Mr. Morales at a new coffee shop in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. He’d opened his own restaurant!
It’s a risky move. According to Crain’s New York Business, the number of coffee shops and diners in the city has declined over the past 25 years from more than 1,000 to fewer than 400.
Last week, I ventured down to Mr. Morales’s AVP Coffee Shop for lunch. The place has just 24 seats. There were the usual framed prints, plum-colored booths and mints by the register. He had four two-dollar bills taped to the wall for luck.
“It seems good,” said my lunch companion, scanning the menu. “All the things people want at the diner. “ Indeed, the menu was delightfully straightforward.
There is a chop steak dinner ($11.95) and a Caesar salad ($8.25). Desserts include rice pudding and Jell-O.
“It’s a nice little spot, clean, friendly,” said Christopher Martinez, finishing a fried chicken platter. He works in the area and has made AVP his new lunch spot.
And I wasn’t the only one who’d made the schlep from brownstone Brooklyn. Debbie and Joe Ruiz, who were regulars at the Cobble Hill Coffee Shop, said they followed Mr. Morales to his new place. “I have cheesecake, and Peter decorates it with whipped cream and cherries,” said Ms. Ruiz. “He knows that’s how I like it.”
Mr. Morales, who is 43 years old and supports his wife and two-year-old twins, grew up in the Puebla state in Mexico, harvesting greens, tomatoes and pumpkins. He moved to New York City in 1992 and got his first job as a delivery man at a West Side diner.
It’s been coffee shops ever since, working at joints all over Manhattan including the Silver Star Restaurant on the East Side and Manatus in the West Village, typically earning $500 to $800 a week.
Mr. Morales arrived at the Cobble Hill Coffee Shop in 2012, where he worked 12- hour days and earned $1,000 a week-enough to start saving.
Last year, he and Rene Martinez, the short-order cook working the same shift, decided to team up and open their own spot.
Their diner, a former Mexican restaurant, is right off the Avenue P stop on the F line, between a vape shop and a smartphone repair store. A modest renovation cost $35,000; the rent is $4,000 a month.
It is, however, a 90-minute commute from his home in the Corona section of Queens.
Seven days a week, Mr. Morales wakes at 4:30 a.m. to open the restaurant by 7 a.m. He’s hired zero help. 14 hours a day, it’s just him waiting tables in front and Mr. Martinez cooking in the back.
“I’m happy, but a little bit tired,” he added.
New York City Hospitality consultant Demetrios Kafchitsas said there is a reason you don’t see many coffee shops opening these days: They’re expensive to run.
Compared to the increasingly popular “fast casual” spots with their buffet-style service and limited menus, coffee shops-with their table service and extensive menus-incur higher rent, food and labor costs, he said.
AVP can make a go of it, Mr. Kafchitsas said, but only given high volume. Factoring in $4,000 rent and food costs of 25%, the restaurant will need to generate $10,000 in sales a week-roughly 130 meals a day.
“It’s an admirable story,” he said. “Good luck to those two guys!”
Mr. Morales said that six weeks in, he’s serving about 50 meals a day. He’s covering the bills, but so far there is nothing left for him or Mr. Martinez.
“Every week we improve,” he says. “Not crazy, crazy, but little by little. Hopefully it keeps going.”