Ralph Lauren’s first-ever coffee shop may be his boldest move yet—and the results are a delicious testament to good taste
alph’s Coffee, the coffee shop tucked in a corner on the second floor of the new Polo Ralph Lauren flagship store, in Manhattan, is a stunner. Cozy and light-filled, it boasts views of New York’s famous Fifth Avenue on one side and 55th Street on another, mosaic white marble–tiled floors and soaring aged-oak ceilings. Creamy white Carrara marble–topped tables, chairs found in Parisian flea markets and a sweeping white wooden banquette can accommodate 22 guests. Behind the bar, baristas clad in striped shirts and green knit ties bustle with cheerful purpose. It’s all very, well, Ralph Lauren, resembling both an American boathouse and a Parisian bistro all at once. When the designer first dreamed of this place, he wanted it to evoke the New York coffee shops of his youth. That its décor also recalls some of his other lifestyle inspirations is not surprising.
White marble, rich oak and painted brick walls add a sense of grandeur to the café’s casual space, inspired by the New York City coffee shops of Mr. Lauren’s youth
What may surprise fans and naysayers alike is the coffee. It’s really, truly good. One would be forgiven for thinking that the actual brew at a shop like Ralph’s Coffee would be beside the point. But Mr. Lauren knew it would have to make a statement, and he knew that for it to do so, he’d have to partner with one of the world’s greatest coffee experts.
Enter La Colombe Torrefaction, a Philadelphia-
based coffee outfit with a reputation not only for sourcing its beans as ethically and sustainably as possible but also for crafting a high-quality product. Countless minute factors affect the caliber of a cup of coffee—water composition and quality, brewing time, temperature and whether or not the grind is consistent—and La Colombe selected top-of-the-line equipment for Ralph’s Coffee to ensure that the baristas would have the kind of precise control necessary to craft a perfect cup. It outfitted the shop with an Italian-made pearl-white La Marzocco FB/80—the Ferrari of espresso machines—and three coffee grinders, two by Mazzer and one by Mahlkönig, which produce a consistent grind while preventing each machine’s heat from compromising the coffee. La Colombe was also charged with putting Ralph’s Coffee baristas through the same rigorous training program that’s in place at its own cafés.
But by far the most involved process was the crafting of the custom coffee and espresso to be brewed and sold exclusively at the shop, and La Colombe worked closely with Mr. Lauren to develop the unique line. As expected, it was not as simple as choosing between, say, Folgers and Maxwell House. La Colombe has collaborated with a handful of food-world luminaries―including Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten―to develop lines of coffee, and the process undertaken with Mr. Lauren was no different. “It’s not like going to the grocery store and picking something off the shelf,” says Nicolas O’Connell, La Colombe’s New York partner. “We wanted blends that would be like a timeless garment, something that would be appreciated as much in 2014 as it would 10 years from now―the navy blazer of coffee.”
The coffee and espresso blends, along with an array of branded merchandise, are available for purchase, allowing visitors to take the Ralph’s Coffee experience home with them
After months of development, Mr. Lauren visited La Colombe’s NoHo café for a blind tasting―the first of many. Eventually, after several more tastings, the options were narrowed down to six final candidates: four blends designed for drip coffee and two for espresso. For the drip variety, a light-roast blend with strong acidity and mellow berry flavors, derived from African and Central and South American beans, was quickly dismissed as being too light for the designer’s taste. Next up was a medium-light coffee from Haiti, but that lacked the body Mr. Lauren looked for in a cup of drip.
“We wanted blends that would be like a timeless garment, something that would be appreciated as much in 2014 as it would 10 years from now―the navy blazer of coffee,” O’Connell says.
Choosing between the third and fourth drip-coffee blends―a medium and a medium-dark roast―was challenging. While each had an appealing richness, the fourth seemed too robust for everyday drinking. In the end, the third―a clean-tasting blend from USDA Organic–certified farms in Honduras, Peru and Nicaragua―prevailed, favored for its dark fruit and caramel flavors and eminent drinkability. For the espresso, Mr. Lauren opted for a creamy, fruity combination of beans from organic farms in Central and South America and Ethiopia.
Providing a calm respite for shoppers, the simply designed coffee shop makes the hustle and bustle of Fifth Avenue, visible from its windows, seem far away
The specific blends will change periodically—coffee, like any other agricultural product, is seasonal and subject to nature’s vicissitudes—but the spirit of the blends will remain constant, just like that of the Polo style.
- All photographs courtesy of Ralph Lauren Corporation