I interviewed the three owners of Southside Coffee: Josh Sidis, Ben Jones, and Ramin Narimani, for a forthcoming article in Edible Brooklyn earlier this month. It was more like interviewing a band than interviewing coffee shop owners, and captured the um, sensibility, of this special south Park Slope establishment. When I go to Southside, I really feel like I could just be playing Xbox with these guys just as easily as they could be serving me some of the most delicious coffee in Brooklyn. Sit with us for a moment and talk about community, won’t you?
Photo of Ben and Lionel by the lovely Jenni Bryant
Liz: What made the three of you decide to open this coffee shop?
Ben: I was a customer of theirs, at a neighborhood coffee shop that we will call An Unnamed Coffee Shop. And I think we ended up becoming freinds first, nothing professional before then. And now it’s only professional and we’re not friends.
Ben: Ramin: It’s been about 7 years.
Ben: They were the only two baristas, they trained me under whip and—
Josh: Riding crop.
Josh: I don’t know.
Liz:: What did you guys do before this?
Ramin: I’m a retried massage therapist, beekeeper, chimneeysweep, a body piercer, assembly line worker, group home worker, communications assistance for a relay service for the deaf, and a barista many times. Barista job is the only thing I ever missed.
Josh: I’m an unemployed actor, and I didn’t want to work for anybody else ever again. It’s not a job with a lot of room for growth, so once you become manager of a place…. it’s like, the next step is owner.
Ben: What’s funny, I think when we originally conceived the place, I wasn’t going to barista, but I think as soon as you own a business you want to get invovled in everything, and they really wanted to tell me what to do so it worked out. I think the biggest thing for all of us was having a place in our neighborhood.
Josh: I pitched the idea to Ben in the bleacher seats at a Brooklyn Cyclones game, and he turned me down.
Liz: Your store seems more neighborhoody and less snooty than some of the other people doing coffee in Brooklyn. Did you tailor that to the neighborhood?
Josh: that was the main focus, was to make it a part of the neighborhood. I think it fits perfectly with this Greenwood Heights, whatever you call this neighborhood, it’s super…
Ben: You don’t get a lot of people that are just commuting by.
Ramin: It’s a lot of old neighborhood people who have been here 40-50 years, they’re coming here as much as anybody else.
Josh: Because we’re so out of the way, we don’t really become a destination spot until the weekends. We get the PTA every morning, 5 days a week we have anywhere from 5-15 parents here, they all know each other and they’re actually louder than their children, and it’s wonderful.
Ramin: We get invited to weddings.
Ben: I think one of the things that’s hard about the service industry that can be alienating is the anonymity? And we don’t have that here. It’s nice knowing the people that we serve every day and finding out what’s going on in their lives, having an actual relationship that’s more than just commerce.
Josh: That’s one thing that i really noticed working at An Unamed Coffee Shop in the city, it’s sort of hello and they just pass you by….
Liz: What was the reception like here when you opened up?
Josh: We had an incredible reception, the soft opening had a line out the door almost the whole day. We ran out of milk, we almost ran out of coffee. It was incredible, it was great.
Ramin: There were a lot of people in here saing things like “i’ve lived here for 4 years and i’ve never seen any of these people” — there wasn’t any sort of hub in the neighborhood and we turend into that. They actually thanked us.
Josh: All those dollar bills and 5s and 10s and 20s taped to the wall are all from neighborhood people wishing us well.
Liz: What’s been your experience watching the Brooklyn coffee scene grow?
Ben: I think a lot of places that have opened up, it seems like they’re very much Manhattan feel still? In a lot of ways? But you do also see that there’s more…they’re a little warmer and more personable, I find. and I think that relates to Brooklyn. Some of that’s a bias on my part, liking neighborhood spots.
Ramin: There’s a lot more good coffee now.
Josh: When we opened, using Intelligentsia, we were the third place in the city, maybe the second to serve their coffee. There’s been a want, by maybe a lot of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, for really good coffee. it’s starting to come to a lot of places now, Clover’s on Atlantic…
Ramin: There’s just been a lot of stuff opening. Not necessarily focused stuff? But a lot of stuff. “It’s a good idea, let’s open a coffee shop!” Whether or not they’re making it properly or doing a good job, there’s a lot of stuff!
It’s like this whole big awareness of specialty coffee coming to New York and grabbing the names of these roasters. There’s a lot of really great places that have opened up, Variety is great, Cafe Pedlar is great, but I feel like it’s just popped up a lot of stuff at the same time.
Liz: Can people tell the difference?
Ramin: People do know, if you make something really well, people know it. But there’s a certain allegiance to a name that people follow.
There’s always people that are really into coffee that know. I think the majority of people can really tell the difference when they have a good cup of coffee. and i think it’s actually changed a lot with a lot of shops, people are starting to come around and get a better grasp on it.
A lot of the articles you read make it sound like nobody in New York has ever had a decent cup of coffee and nobody knows. And a lot of people like you or any of us have been going to these shops! All the articles say “New Yorkers drink deli coffee from carts and it all tastes like shit and you’re all idiots!”
Josh: A lot of the neighborhoods, the Fort Greenes, the Park Slopes, the Windsor Terraces, are now becoming more aware, they’ve been aware for awhile, but they’re starting to know the difference between the Direct Trades and the Fair Trades. those neighborhoods really latch onto that.
Liz: Are you going to open another shop?
Ben: We’ve talked about it. One of the things that’s interesting, a lot of the things we love about this shop have to do with being local and small and knowing people, and it would be really hard to replicate, and if we did we’d have to try really hard to do that while having high standards…we’d have to make hard choices around that.
Ramin: Yeah, a lot of it is that all three of us can really be here and keep focused.
I think Brooklyn is just more neighborhoody. Everybody in the shop knows each other more than people in the city. The shop is more geared towards people hanging out in a lot of ways. it seems like there’s more traffic and more turnover in most of the shops in Manhattan.
Josh: there’s not really a chance for you to get to know your customers or for them to get to know you.
Liz: Couldn’t you just serve shitty coffee? Since neighborhoods are your strength?
Ben: I think one of the things that we really strived to do was — I mean, we taste all of our stuff all the time, and have a really high standard around that and we LOVE all of our products. But the thing we don’t want to do is make it unapproachable or make it so people feel like they have to pay so much attention to the different nuances and so forth. You can do really high quality stuff without being over the top in your presentation of it. And I don’t mean latte art, I mean the product itself. You don’t need to feel like someone’s lecturing you, there are some people that are really interested in that, and that’s wonderful…but people want to be more connected to their food from a real kind of taste and sensual standpoint and not feel like they’re being overwhelmed by all the craftsmanship that’s gone into it.
Ramin: It’s important for us to make really excellent coffee as much as it is to be nice to everybody and create that atmosphere. It just kind of goes hand in hand. And you get a free HJ with every pound of whole bean coffee you buy.