COFFEED’s Frank “Turtle” Raffaele: Brewing Coffee & Building Community

August 11, 2014 – Coffee shop enthusiasts throughout New York, from caffeine-crazed espresso-heads to the occasional decaf dabblers, have been singing COFFEED’s praises since it first opened its doors in 2012 in Long Island City, Queens, on the ground floor of the same building Brooklyn Grange calls home. The charity-minded business, which specializes in sustainably-sourced, local and fair trade goodies, has since spread to Long Island and Manhattan, with future locations planned for as far away as South Korea and exotic, mysterious Staten Island.

COFFEED has also been lauded numerous times by the press and various community organizations for its charitable business plan — the company donates 5-10% of all gross revenue to local non-profit organizations. They’ve been a supporter of the Refugee & Immigrant Fund almost since the beginning; likewise, much of the produce used in-store is harvested by RIF participants in the Urban Farm Recovery Project.

Visitors to any of the franchise’s four current locations would be hard-pressed to miss co-founder and CEO Frank Raffaele, nickname “Turtle,” chatting rapid-fire with customers or business partners in his trademark tank top and Yale baseball cap, a coffee in one hand and cellphone in the other.

Speaking with Frank is like taking a double shot of espresso intravenously — his boundless energy and enthusiasm for his work are contagious. We got him to sit still long enough to talk about what inspires him, all against the beautiful backdrop of the Manhattan skyline at COFFEED’s new LIC Landing location on the East River (where RIF just so happens to be hosting its 2014 Harvest Benefit on September 14…come check it out for yourself!).

Frank, at COFFEED's LIC location. (Photo: Koray Ersin).
Frank, at COFFEED’s LIC location. (Photo: Koray Ersin).

So, where are you from?

I’m a New York guy. I’m originally from Queens, but I spent a lot of time in Coney Island, Brooklyn. I went to high school in Manhattan, then to Yale University. I had a bunch of different interesting jobs — I worked for Mayor Giuliani for a bunch of years in the Parks Department; I worked on Wall Street for a bunch of years as a trader, which was a lot of fun; and then eventually I wound up going into the food service business, which is what I’ve been doing now for the last few years, and it’s been incredible.

How’d you end up in the coffee world?

I did non-profit work for a large portion of my college and post-college career before I went to Wall Street, which is completely for-profit, obviously. And all of it was good; non-profit’s good, for-profit’s good — they’re all good types of fields. But I was looking for a place to sort of bring them both together. I wanted to have a business that had a charitable side to it, but that was also very profitable.

That model works in businesses that have a high profit margin, much like food service. And there’s something very human about serving something to somebody, whether it’s a coffee, or a beer, or a sandwich. There’s a nice connection there that was very appealing to me. We have four locations and a fifth one coming, and it’s been tremendously enjoyable. A lot of work, a lot of craziness, a lot of aggravation, but amazingly enjoyable.

How do you account for COFFEED spreading so quickly? You’re out on Long Island; you’ve got the Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island locations…Are you in Brooklyn, too?

Our roasting plant is going to be in Brooklyn, actually.

And then there’s one opening up in South Korea…

Yup, South Korea’s coming.

That’s a lot, very, very quickly.

Yeah. The idea for COFFEED was always to be a big company. I like the idea of having a mom and pop business, but the idea was always to be, if we could, a nation-wide, international venture that had a very high end vibe to it, a great product, and also a nice charitable side to it. It’s growing faster than I thought, actually, and I think the reason why is that we have a lot of great partners — the Refugee & Immigrant Fund is one of the biggest ones. So we have these great charitable partners that we collaborate with, that we support even in a very small way.

I think a lot of our charitable partners, we build a relationship with them and they build a relationship with us, and they become advocates for our business even more so than we are. Which is very unique, I think, and it’s something I didn’t really expect, to have people that are actually excited about supporting a for-profit business. Usually you hear people say “Oh, I can’t believe I spent three dollars for a coffee — they’re taking my money.” It’s almost the opposite with a lot of our customers. They’re happy to support us knowing that a portion of everything we do goes to charity.

We’ve also been very lucky along the way. Where we’re sitting right now is a very lucky opportunity, this amazing park. And I think the business model that we had developed with this for-profit/charitable mix really resonated with a lot of people, a lot of landlords, and a lot of customers, and it really is spreading.

We’re still small; four sites sounds like a lot, but I’m sure Starbucks has tens of thousands. So, you know, we’re just a speck right now.

Do you think COFFEED could offer an alternative model and maybe not be a competitor to Starbucks, per se, but offer a different way of running a business?

That’s a great way to put it; that’s exactly the way that I think about it. We are competitors at some level, because people are choosing where to go get lunch, where to go get coffee, but at a much bigger level we’re trying to create something new. We certainly didn’t invent social causes; there are tons of amazing social cause businesses, phenomenal ones, and we try to emulate them. But we are creating something that’s relatively new, this revenue-based model. Not a lot of people have done the revenue-based model, where it is based on pure revenue, nothing to do with profitability. So whether we’re profitable or not — and thankfully we are profitable — we give money to charity. And that’s something that’s sort of unique for us. So I think it’s exciting to be a part of that.

A lot of it is changing daily; it’s an experiment. And I have a science background, so I don’t mind having a business where I’m able to shift or change as things change. That’s the way you’re supposed to approach laboratory work — you’re not supposed to have an end result in mind. You’re supposed to have a general idea of what your end result is, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You don’t know what path you’re going to take, and so you have to be open-minded to a lot of paths. We know the end result is to be huge, hopefully, and we want to be a company that can prove that you can have this charitable concept that could create a new model for retail and food service. So I know that’s the end result, but we’ll see which way it takes to get there.

It seems like the kind of company that could adapt itself to whatever locale you’re in, whatever the demand is in the area. And that leads into something else I wanted to ask you. I know you’re really rooted in place, and it’s important for COFFEED to be a part of the communities you’re located in; do you think as the company expands and you open all these new locations outside of New York, is it going to be difficult to stay true to that local and sustainable ethos?

Yeah, it would certainly be difficult. The entire business — which is why I like it — is a challenge.

We do have a local vibe, and we do have a really great eco-friendly, sustainable approach. One of the reasons is because of the [Brooklyn Grange] farm. Especially this time of year, we have farm produce in our kitchens, which is something that not a lot of restaurants in New York have.

Let alone be able to say that it’s coming from six stories up.

The only restaurants that really use this amazing produce from the Brooklyn Grange are huge, Michelin three-star restaurants where it’s $200 a head, and us, with our $6 salad. Our pricing is not expensive, so we’re providing an amazing product for a very low price. That’s important.

We’re brand new, and I think as we go to other markets it’s going to be challenging to figure out which parts of the business are going to tie together, you know? We want people to have a similar experience everywhere they go. The coffee’s consistent; we roast our own coffee, so you’re going to have the same coffee. The food is consistent. We want customer service to be consistent. We’re a fun place in a way; it’s a serious business, but it’s a fun, quirky atmosphere, and we try to hire people that sort of fit the model. A lot of people that we do hire come from really cool places like RIF, for example. We hired a couple people through RIF. We’ve made a lot of connections through the farm. A lot of people are already into the business model before they even come on board. They like the business model, which is why we’re able to attract a lot of great employees.

How did you meet Maria and get involved with RIF?

I first met Maria on the farm. I saw a bunch of the refugees coming through the Urban Farm Recovery Project. Obviously I knew the refugees right away; they stand out in a way that you know that they’re not the usual volunteers we have on the farm. And I started talking to them because they were my customers at first, and I was blown away. These people have traveled around the world to work on a farm in Queens, coming from ridiculously difficult lives and some horrible situations, leaving families behind — but they’re just happy people. There’s a real dichotomy there. You see them and you want to cry when you hear their story, but then you want to cry with happiness that they’re making their lives better by being here.

And then when talking to Maria about it, you see why the program’s amazing. She’s just the highlight of my day when I see her; she brings out the best in everyone. And she is changing people — I mean, literally changing people’s lives every single day, which is incredible. Because COFFEED helps people, we give them nice food, but to see Maria really taking people and improving their conditions in America and the world is something that I wanted to be a part of. And we play a very small role in it, and it’s totally to our benefit.

A big goal of COFFEED is to help programs like RIF, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to do so so far. And it’s a small program, so the small help we’re able to give goes sometimes a long way, and we see where it’s being used, we see the huge benefit. Hopefully as we grow, we can grow this relationship with Maria — you get this great warmth with her that you don’t normally get from people, especially in New York City.

Finally, where’d the nickname ‘Turtle’ come from?

Turtle. When I worked for Mayor Giuliani they had this system where everyone who worked for the Parks agency went by a nickname. So the Commissioner used to nickname people, and you had to forget every other name that you had; you could only go by the nickname. So my name Turtle came from that. This was 1995, my last name is Raffaele… I don’t know if that makes a connection for you or not…Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Yeah. They were hot back then, and I guess they’re hot again right now. So it hit, it stuck, and it was great because you get a connection with people. If you’re Turtle, and someone’s Starfish, and someone else is Jitterbug —

Did Giuliani have a nickname?

Eagle. He was Eagle. So it bonded you together, and the name sort of just stuck. I think other people here at COFFEED are developing nicknames, too. It’s a little bit cultish, but maybe not all cults are bad, you know what I mean? Some people would say “corporate culture,” I guess.

But anyway, stuff like that is helpful because we’re a team, we work hard together, we work a lot of hours. We view COFFEED as a start-up, you know? When you have a start-up, whether it’s an internet-based company, food service, whatever, if you want to succeed, you have to do anything it takes to succeed. A lot of times what it takes to succeed is being a little nuts. And the nickname certainly helps accentuate some of the nuttiness. In order for us to get to where we need to be it’s going to take a lot of hard work, sweat, massive amounts of aggravation, and also massive amounts of fun. That’s where we’re going with it right now, and it’s been incredibly awesome and challenging.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. Content originally appeared at Growing Together.


All content copyright © Chris Barrett 2015 unless otherwise credited.