Today’s new luxury hotels are on the hunt to fill their F&B spaces with trendsetting partners. That’s why the owner of the soon-to-be TWA Hotel at JFK is looking to the Midwest to satisfy its caffeine craving.
— Laura Powell
Long gone are the days when a hotel could install a nameless coffee outlet in the lobby and expect a steady drip of customers. But nowadays, even one-size-fits-all Starbucks outlets are being filtered out by many boutique properties, which are opting to align with coffee brands that are more on the cutting edge.
According to market research firm Ibis World, “One of the fastest-growing segments over the past five years has been independent coffee shops, which target coffee connoisseurs. This trend, which has been termed ‘third-wave’ …considers coffee an artisanal product rather than a commodity.” The Coffee and Snack Shops in the US report goes on to say that “prominent third-wave coffee exponents, such as Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon and Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago, have led the charge.”
That helps explain why hipster brand Ace Hotels partners with Stumptown. But to understand what’s brewing between two high-design New York City properties and Intelligentsia takes a bit more explanation.
Finding the Right Partner
MCR Development, led by founder Tyler Morse, owns scores of hotels across the United States. Most operate under the flags of big hotel brands. But two of the company’s crown jewels, the soon-to-open TWA Hotel at JFK Airport and The High Line Hotel in Manhattan, are run as high-end independent properties.
In 2013, before The High Line Hotel in New York opened, Morse sent a coffee shop request for proposal to 30 operators. The grounds for selecting a partner, according to Morse, “The vibe that the coffee purveyor would bring — the je ne sais quoi — was vital.”
Enter Intelligentsia. The Chicago-based company was founded in 1995 by a California couple looking to bring fresh-roasted coffee to the Midwest. According to James McLaughlin, Intelligentsia CEO and president, “Our philosophy and approach is very particular. We want to educate consumers about extraordinary coffee. It’s our belief that the coffee bar should be a culinary experience. So, we look to elevate the coffee bar experience by spending a lot of time and money creating an experience designed for specifically for the neighborhood.”
That approach was appealing to Morse. “What we liked about Intelligentsia (at the time four stores strong) is that it’s not the Starbucks approach of the same thing over and over again. I visited their stores (in California and Chicago) and was taken with how each one fit the neighborhood they are in.”
Just as Morse appreciated the diversity and design-forward creativity Intelligentsia brought to its spaces, Intelligentsia, according to McLaughlin, appreciated that Morse was “trying to curate an experience for his hotel guests in a way that we are trying to curate experiences for our customers.”
And so, Intelligentsia opened its first retail outlet in New York at the High Line. Attracting both guests and locals, the coffee operation brings in $3200 per square foot in annual revenue, exceeding expectations.
Replicating the Success
Given the success of the partnership, when it came time to select a cafe operator for the iconic TWA Hotel at JFK, Intelligentsia was first in line.
When he took on the project, Morse felt the pressure to do the conversion of Eero Saarinen’s landmark 1962 TWA Flight Center at JFK proud. “The TWA building is wildly iconic, and has so much historic fabric. So, we are looking at everything with a 1962 lens.” For perspective, Morse notes that was a time when “Kennedy was president, John Glenn had just circled the earth, the Jetsons aired on television, and the first James Bond, featuring Dr. No, came out.”
Given the history, “We couldn’t just plop a coffee shop in there like a Marriott or a Sheraton. The coffee shop had to fit in with the building’s mid-century modern atmosphere. We had to consider how Saarinen would have designed this.”
Morse was closely involved in the “hands-on, iterative process,” as were representatives from Intelligentsia and the project’s interior design firm. Morse says historic design elements include everything from the glassware to the seating. As McLaughlin says, “We are going to activate a coffee experience reflecting the period. It’s going to be a perfect representation of a coffee bar that feels like it has always existed in that building.”
Just as the High Line Hotel does not rely on hotel guests, surprisingly, neither will the TWA outlet. Morse points out that the hotel is physically connected to the JetBlue terminal and a short walk from the Delta terminal. So, it’s easy to for passengers, and for airport workers, to get to.
A Unique Customer Base
“The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that airports are communities,” said Morse. “Forty thousand people work at JFK. There are FAA and Port Authority employees; baggage handlers, air cargo, flight attendants, pilots — all of whom may be stopping by to get a cup of coffee.”
While passengers rushing to their flights are unlikely to amble over to the hotel, Morse points out that 54 percent of JFK’s traffic is international. And, given the original design of the airport, passengers transferring from international to domestic flights (or vice versa) have to leave the secure area.
That’s why Morse believes he can capture a decent percentage of the 35,000 people a day who have a layover of four hours or more. Morse also suggests the coffee outlet will be the perfect place to hold business meetings. “All roads lead to JFK. This can be a mutual meeting place, where people can accomplish fly-in, fly-out meetings from around the country and instead of going into the city, meet at the hotel.”
“What Tyler is doing,” said McLaughlin, “is curating an all-star line-up of food and beverages.” Jean-George Vongerichten will be opening a restaurant there as well.
“So, it’s not only going to become a destination for travelers, but we feel confident that it will become a destination for residents.” McLaughlin said, adding that for Intelligentsia, “The TWA project represents a phenomenal opportunity for us as a relatively small company. This has an international aspect to it, so it gives us the ability to expose more people to our brand, and more importantly, to showcase the idea of coffee as a culinary experience.”