Brooklyn Heights

New at iconic 16 Court Street: Great coffee, Gregory himself

June 3, 2016 By Celia Weintrob Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Gregory Zamfotis, owner of Gregory’s Coffee. Photos by Celia Wientrob

If Bernie Sanders’ campaign logo seems familiar to you, it might be because it’s remarkably similar to the Gregory’s Coffee logo, ubiquitous for the past 10 years among college students.

But Downtown Brooklyn denizens may recognize Gregory as the guy who managed the Zams food stop on Fulton Street from 2004 to 2005, as a summer intern at the Wenig Saltiel law firm at 26 Court St., as a student at Brooklyn Law School or resident of Monroe Place and Montague Street.

“I’ve been looking for a location in Downtown Brooklyn for years,” said Gregory Zamfotis, owner of the coffee chain that bears his name. “I lived here for five years and know the neighborhood very well.” When a chance came up to rent in an SL Green building, he said he grabbed it, signing the lease about 18 months ago.

After a short stint at a law firm, Zamfotis realized law was not the right fit for him. He jumped at the chance to manage his father’s prepared food store, called Zams, on Fulton Street between Boerum Place and Pearl Street, deciding to rely on his undergrad business degree in operations management to see how he liked running a food service business. Turns out he loved it. “I’d been shredding carrots for my father since I was 5, and delivering orders as a teenager,” he said, so it was very familiar.

Zamfotis’ father, a Marine Park native, owned Max’s Donuts in Bay Ridge; seven Zams locations; a couple of old-timey, diner style coffee shops; three PGS deli locations; and still owns Charlie’s, a pizza/deli spot at 110 Trinity Place.

“While I was managing the Brooklyn Zams, my father and I would meet often at Starbucks on Joralemon Street to discuss how things were going, and we’d pick apart things I’d do differently if I had my own coffee place,” Zamfotis said. “At that time, the landscape in NYC was Starbucks, with very few alternatives.”

The first Gregory’s Coffee opened 10 years ago on Park Avenue and 24th Street in Manhattan, and Zamfotis spent three years developing his niche, focusing on the right mix of drink offerings, what he wanted his staff to know and how the store could operate at peak efficiency. The store on Montague at Court is his 17th.

Zamfotis prides himself on developing workflow systems to achieve maximum output. “While Starbucks is known for long lines, we traffic an equivalent number of customers through our locations, despite their being smaller spaces,” Zamfotis said. And other things that set Gregory’s Coffee apart? “Every one of my team members can fully explain every item on the menu, and make intelligent suggestions on what to order. And we actually follow recipes, not just press a button and it’s done automatically.”

Astonishingly, Zamfotis says his staff adjusts the grind setting for their espresso 150 times per day, to give the very best quality. “The humidity and air pressure affects the grind, the way it clumps up, and the way your coffee tastes,” Zamfotis explained. At other chains, the grind setting stays the same all day long. His personal favorite drink is the single origin (beans all from one place, not a blend) aero-pressed coffee, “which is a mini-science experiment every time you brew it.”

Similarities between wine and coffee may seem distant, but there are actually some striking ones regarding flavor notes. Gregory’s features a coffee from Burundi which has hints of grapefruit, cherry and black tea flavors. These are not added flavors but essential to the beans themselves. While wine has about 70 flavor notes, coffee has more than 750, Zamfotis said, which is one reason he finds the coffee business so fascinating. “But with coffee, you’re dealing with a $2 drink, versus a $50 bottle of wine.” So you can enjoy all the complexity without a big price tag.

Gregory’s Coffee at 16 Court St. (entrance on Montague) is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.