Gregory Zamfotis is the man behind the glasses at Gregorys Coffee, a growing specialty coffee chain with over 20 locations in New York. He talks business, shares his experiences working with his family, and tells us why he’s so stylish all the time.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
My first coffee job was at Gregorys Coffee, a New York-based company that has grown from three small stores when I started in 2010 to 21 locations, spanning three boroughs and two states. When I think back to the skills I prize in myself as a barista—from managing people to moving a line quickly—I learned them at Gregorys.
Gregory Zamfotis is the man behind the eponymous coffee business. Although sometimes theorized by customers as an imaginary marketing tool (“Does Gregory actually exist?”), you can often find him running a register or helping steam milk at any of his locations. He’s accessible, easy to talk to, and took time out of running some of the busiest cafes in the city to chat with Barista Magazine about the highlights and challenges of owning a coffee institution.
Ashley Rodriguez: You have 30 words to describe Gregorys Coffee. Go!
Gregory Zamfotis: I can do it in 20: Gregorys is a community of incredible humans who are lucky enough to roast and brew amazing coffee as a profession.
AR: Why did you want to start a coffee shop? What led you to coffee?
GZ: This takes more than 20, sorry. I always dreamed of starting my own business—it just took me a while to figure out what business that was. My original idea was to work as a banker or lawyer, make some money, and then start a business. I grew up in the food and beverage industry, having a father who owned and operated a number of food operations in NYC. I was always helping him. From swatting flies at 3 years old, shaving carrots at 5, somehow he allowed me to do deliveries as a 7-year-old, and later assisting in management. I grew up in this. So during my tenure at law school, I decided to forego my original plan and dive right into entrepreneurship.
I was fortunate in that my father had a deli near my school that needed a full-time manager, so I offered my services. I had worked with my father for 15 years, but always with the mindset of helping him. This time I would approach the opportunity thinking about it as a career. I absolutely loved the experience, but wanted to create something of my own. At that point, I took my experience operating a food operation and my budding passion for coffee, and decided to develop a coffee concept.
AR: What’s the difference between opening store two and opening store 21? What have you learned along the way?
GZ: Store two was probably one of the hardest things we ever did. At the time, doubling the size of the company and really depending on others to manage the locations since I could not be at both all the time was so daunting. I struggled with trying to replicate what we had taken three years to build at our store on 24th and Park Avenue South, at a new location, with a whole new set of team members, and hoping people would embrace our little brand in a new part of the city.
Now with opening the 21st store, at this point we have gotten very good at opening new locations. We have an amazing team of people who help us get our stores open. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from previous missteps. There is plenty we have learned along the way, and each store has its own set of challenges to get it opened. But as long as you have great people by your side and you empower them, it is hard to miss.
AR: You’ve been featured in a lot of publications not just for your cafes, but also for your wardrobe and style. When did fashion become important to you? How do you craft your sense of style?
GZ: Ha! I have always taken pride in how I present myself; I use clothing as a means of expression. “Fashion” is a tough word. My earliest memory with regards to caring about clothing would be when I wanted a Chicago Bulls Starter jacket in fourth grade. I loved Michael Jordan and wanted to show my admiration to the world. But I guess I started thinking about fashion and clothing as an art in high school when I had some of my own money from the jobs I worked.
AR: Your family is super involved in your business. How is it running your business with your family by your side? How are they involved?
GZ: Running a business with your family is super interesting in that, we don’t sugar coat anything. That can be great, but can also be painful when you hear things straight up. But I will say I wouldn’t ever change a thing. Succeeding with family members by your side is a wonderful feeling, and we all love what we do—it’s so rare to be able to have that happen.
My father helps with our food production, new store build-outs, real estate, and expansion plans. My sister Kristin oversees our marketing and store design. My sister Dina oversees our commissary operation, and as a registered dietitian helps cultivate our menu. My wife, Shalaine, was head of our HR department until we had a little one, and since then she has stepped away from Gregorys.
AR: What’s one piece of advice you’d give business owners?
GZ: Stand out. Open a business that means something, and is doing something different from others in the industry. Business is tough, competitive, and challenging. If you have a real identity, people will notice.
AR: A thing I admire is how present you are—the last time I was in New York, I saw you jump behind the bar and steam milk. How do you think about your involvement inside the cafes? What do you want baristas (your employees) to think when you come into their stores?
GZ: I will never stop being a barista. Everyone on my staff will tell you I am always in the thick of things—I really can’t help myself. I know all our team members, and we all have fun together. I would hope to hear they like having me around. I think they do. I am all about action, and I would never ask someone to do something I haven’t done myself 100 times. I think my staff knows that, and it really means something to them. This is a team effort, and we all work together to make things work.
AR: Many of your staff members have been part of the Gregorys team for years. How do you keep your staff happy?
GZ: There is no magic to this. If you do right by people, treat them with respect, and practice what you preach, I think your team will be happy. I do my best to make sure we take care of everyone on our team and you can’t fake that.
AR: Every year, you host the Greggies (a lighthearted ‘awards’ show in the style of the Dundies from The Office). Why? Why are team-building events like this important to you?
GZ: It is important to me to have fun and to recognize the amazing people in this company. The Greggies lets me do both. I love my team, and building a community for my team involves time together in and out of work. We have incredible turnout to our voluntary events, and I think that speaks volumes to the love we have for each other.
AR: Has your perception of owning and operating a business changed much over the years?
GZ: To be honest, not much. I have always been somewhat of a dreamer, and a bit fearless. Of course, certain things change as you grow. There’s more paperwork and we’re doing a lot more, but the big-picture things are the same. I am just as dedicated to my commitment to my team, to excellence, to innovation. I would tell young GZ not to stop. Things have changed so much in the past 10 years, and I still have a list of about 25 pending projects we are working on. As Nas once said, “I don’t sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.” I think about that a lot. I work very hard, and I never stop making Gregorys better.
AR: What do you consider success? What’s the most important thing for you to achieve or see when you look at your cafes?
GZ: I will never get tired of seeing people on the street carrying our cup. All I care about is making the experience as close to perfect as I can—that goes for our guests and our team members. I consider it a success when my team says working at Gregorys is not work, it’s fun—and when guests say our experience is second to none.
AR: What’s the future look like? 100 stores? A store on the moon?
GZ: The future is so bright for us. We have some absolutely incredible and talented people who work for us. I’ll go to Jupiter so long as I have the right people to help me get there. It is hard to speculate too much, but to use a baseball reference, we are probably in the first inning of this game.