LIC biz strives for the best cup o’ joe

Rich Nieto, owner of SweetLeaf, hopes to introduce Long Island City residents to gourmet coffee within their own neighborhood. The shop opened last summer. Photo by Jeremy Walsh
By Jeremy Walsh

Sweetleaf Coffee and Tea is not the first business owner Rich Nieto has run, but it is the first the Flushing resident can call a labor of love.

The handsomely restored, open−brick−walled coffee shop at the corner of 11th Street and Jackson Avenue in Long Island City opened in July after about nine months of preparation.

“For the first time in my life, I’m doing something I love,” he said. “It’s something every coffee geek dreams about.”

The shop offers gourmet coffees — including a decaf variety Nieto roasts at home and French−presses in the shop — 25 varieties of teas, baked goods, hot chocolate and soon soup and sandwiches for lunch.

For Nieto, Sweetleaf was the culmination of a decade of work in coffee shops and just as much time off the clock immersing himself in the art of a great cup of coffee.

“I’ve always been a coffee geek,” Nieto, 35, said, noting he has been buying raw coffee beans online and roasting them at home for years.

Nieto, who grew up working for his father’s construction business in Long Island City, has also worked as a janitor and the head of a telecommunications company.

He finally decided to open his own shop after his brother−in−law was beginning to restore the storefront at 48−12 11th St. in the hopes of opening a pizzeria.

“I said, ‘What Long Island City really needs is a great coffeehouse,’” Nieto said. “There’s great coffeehouses in Brooklyn, there’s great coffeehouses in Manhattan, but they aren’t here yet.”

The two men set about restoring the building, which dates back to at least the 1920s.

“We worked hard to restore all the glass and the brick,” he said, noting he and his partner did all the interior work.

Nieto and Sweetleaf benefited greatly from the arrival of Portland’s famed Stumptown Coffee Roasters to a location in Brooklyn, which National Public Radio has named the world’s best coffee.

Nieto, who has traveled to several South American countries during his time running the telecommunications company, said he admired Stumptown’s “direct trade” business model with coffee farmers.

Company representatives visit the farms personally and deal directly with the farmers, he said, offering higher prices in turn for taking more care in the cultivation and harvesting of the beans.

“It improves quality, and the farmers are contractually obligated to put money back into the community,” he said.

Since newcomers to gourmet coffee may not know all the ins and outs, Nieto has a couple of simple tips:

First, take a moment to smell the brew in your cup before drinking.

“There’s fruit, there’s flowers, there’s a lot of things going on in a great cup of coffee,” he said of the aroma.

Second, do not take the darkness of the roast as the absolute value of the coffee.

“Think of it like a fine steak. You don’t completely char it when you cook it,” he said, noting that a coffee bean’s aroma diminishes the longer it is roasted. “Medium roast coffee’s kind of got a bad rap with people. We’re trying to de−Starbuck−ify them.”

But finally, consider an espresso−based drink.

“It’s more fun,” he said. “The baristas, they’re all geeks. They don’t want to give you a cup. They want to prepare a drink for you and make their latte art on top of it.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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