A month and a half ago, Prodigy Coffee opened its doors on Carmine Street in the Village. “I’ve been doing this for a long time” says Chris Calkins, entrepreneur, expert coffee roaster, and co-owner and operator of Prodigy Coffee.
Chris’ first coffee venture began in college. He was a drama major at the University of Arizona and after graduation, opened a theater coffee-house called The Mind’s Eye. “I grew up in Connecticut and had a life of coming into the village, hanging out in coffee houses, and listening to musicians. The coffee at the Mind’s Eye was terrible, but it was my first coffee experience and I learned a lot from it.”
Fast forward to 1978. Chris was hired by Starbucks to start their restaurant division in Seattle and open their fourth and fifth stores. Ironically, Starbucks wasn’t growing fast enough, and three years later Ken Bakke-owner of the espresso company La Marzocco-offered Chris a tempting gig to open a new branch of the espresso company in San Francisco. Chris traded in the Washington rain for California sunshine and made the move down the West Cost from Seattle to San Francisco.
“Six months into La Marzocco, in 1983, my top sales guy and I left to start our own coffee company-still in San Francisco-called Spinelli…Spinelli Coffee Co. Spinelli started with two guys delivering coffee-that someone else had roasted-out of the back seat of their car. 15 years later we had twelve company-owned stores in San Francisco.”
During this time Alfred Peak, who started the West Coast coffee boom that lead to the East Coast coffee boom, showed up to the coffee shop and took Chris and his partner under his wing.
“He said ‘You guys don’t know anything about coffee.’ And he was right!” says Chris.
One summer, Alfred taught the two men how to cup. During the late 80’s, they cupped coffee three days a week for three years until they developed a handful of great blends. The business was successful, so they continued to open new stores. In ’97 Tully’s Coffee Starbucks wanted to buy them, so Chris sold Spinelli and moved to Napa Valley and started a new venture, a winery called Destino.
In 2007, fate brought Chris back to New York City when he met his wife, actress BeBe Neuwirth (from Cheers and Frasier), and fell in love with her. Currently, Bebe is performing as Tatiania in A Midsummers Night’s Dream at the Classic Stage Theater on 13th Street. The show runs through May 20th.
“She got a Tony for Chicago and A Chorus Line, and two Emmys for Cheers, so she’s the real deal. So I sold everything in California and came back to New York to marry Bebe,” tells Chris. “I didn’t know what sort of work to do, so I did some consulting in both the coffee and wine business. That’s how I met Ira Horowitz, my partner here at Prodigy. We became good friends and He told me he liked that I had a coffee business. He said, ‘I know about service, I know about operations, but I don’t know anything about coffee.’ I said, ‘Well, I know a little bit about coffee.’
So here we are.
That’s when I contacted George Howell in Washington. We collaborated and came up with a private label here at Prodigy. With George’s help, I’ve developed my private label, single origin coffee. The only thing we don’t create here at Prodigy is the espresso.
The idea of a coffee house as a meeting place and sanctuary goes back hundreds of years. Because we’re in the village we really wanted something that was representative of the past and honoring to the past, but current with our coffee quality, technology, and service.”
In his free time, Chris (and his wife Bebe are photographers). Pick up a copy of their book, One Camera, Four Eyes here.
Visit Prodigy Coffee on 33 Carmine Street. Take the A, B, C, D, E, F, or M to West 4th Street, or the 1 to Houston Street.
Hours: M-F 7a-8p, Sat 8a-8p, Sunday 8a-7p.
Atmosphere: Prodigy is a great place to meet friends, read a book, or have a meeting. Kick back and enjoy this West Village gem for an afternoon.