Women’s History Month Spotlight: ChiSum Ngai and Kaleena Teoh of Coffee Project NY
Coffee Project NY is a specialty coffee shop, roastery, and academy rolled up in one.
March 03, 2021
This Women’s History Month, Downtown Brooklyn is proud to share stories of our many women founders and business owners, starting with Coffee Project NY, nestled in the heart of the Brooklyn Cultural District on Rockwell Place in Downtown Brooklyn.
Coffee Project NY is a specialty coffee shop, roastery, and academy rolled up in one. Founded in 2015, Coffee Project NY opened its Downtown Brooklyn store in 2018 at the Pioneer Building, and has grown from a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop to an international coffee community.
We talked with co-founders ChiSum Ngai and Kaleena Teoh to find out about their journey, tips for budding entrepreneurs, and of course, all things coffee.
DBP: Most importantly, what are your go-to coffee orders?
Kaleena Teoh (KT): Mine is definitely a black coffee, so if it’s not busy then I’ll get a pour over. If it’s really busy I’ll get a drip coffee.
ChiSum Ngai (CN): I drink a lot of different things — black coffee is my go-to because it’s quick, and you can just take the batch drip. If I have time, I make a pour over, but I’m also down to drink some espresso beverages like a cortado.
DBP: What would you recommend to a first time coffee drinker or someone who is less familiar with specialty coffee?
KT : If it’s your first time doing specialty coffee, I’d definitely say try a pour over. Try an Ethiopian/African coffee if possible, because usually it changes people’s minds about what coffee could taste like. It’s very floral, sometimes it’s fruity - very different from what our perception of coffee is.
CN: Black coffee can be a little bit intimidating, which is why it’s all down to how the barista presents it. Usually we’ll ask, “do you feel adventurous, how do you like your coffee, do you drink coffee?” From there we can make recommendations. Most of the time, people go for a mocha — easy to drink. Then a latte, then a cappuccino — but black coffee is when you want to finally introduce someone to the original taste of the coffee — the terroir that you are actually drinking.
DBP: One doesn’t see a lot of Asian baristas.
CN: When we first started our venture in the East Village in 2015 it was definitely harder. Back then there were even less in the Asian community who were baristas or did specialty coffee, so we had a hard time getting our message across. There were a few times when people would open the door, see two Asian women making coffee, and just leave. It’s real. It just makes us want to work even harder and tell them “hey, enjoy this, regardless.” Right now, I’m pretty happy with where we stand. It’s a lot of hard work, but no one is going to come into Coffee Project right now and not order a cup of coffee or leave — they might even want to wait for twenty minutes! I dare to say we are the most diverse group of coffee professionals in NYC. We have people from around the world – literally — as part of our team.
DBP: How did you get started opening up Coffee Project NY?
CN: I just wanted to do something with Kaleena that belonged to us. We chose coffee because we spent the most time in coffee shops! When we first started, we only had the most basic coffee equipment. Funny enough, at that time, apparently specialty coffee was not a thing you talked to your customer about. So when we brought this kind of hospitality into specialty coffee, people weren’t really used to it — but they liked it, and it made coffee drinking an experience. People would come for coffee and chat with us and we knew each customer by name. Since it’s a very small community, people started talking about how “there are these two Asian girls making killer cappuccinos” and that’s how word of us spread.
DBP: Why Downtown Brooklyn?
CS: We love this neighborhood. Kaleena and I both love theater and art, and this location is so close to BAM, BRIC etc. We thought we would be able to hang out a lot after we are done with work. Not to mention, it’s near the park and it’s a destination full of cultural activities (like at Ashland Plaza).
DBP: Any tips or advice for those wanting to start their own business?
KT: I think being flexible is the most important thing. Going into the coffee world as a barista is a little easier, but if you’re really looking at starting your own coffee shop, the best advice we can give is to walk into the job with a problem-solving mindset, regardless of what problem is thrown at you. Be very flexible in dealing with things.
Since its inception in 2015, Coffee Project NY has expanded to four locations across NYC — one of which is a roastery where beans are roasted and classes are taught.