Aug 25, 2021 • 46M

The Two Lives of Nigel Price

Nigel Price is the owner of Drip Coffee Makers—and he wants you to slow down

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Ashley Rodriguez
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Before coffee, Nigel Price had a career in finance, working for a firm in Downtown Manhattan. But eventually, he decided he’d had enough—and he turned to cafes as a way to break away from the life he’d built and the trajectory he no longer wanted to be on. Over a decade later, Nigel credits coffee as the beginning of his second life, giving him a chance to create connections and bond with people in a way that his prior life in finance hadn’t.

Nigel spent 11 years learning about coffee before he opened the first iteration of Drip Coffee Makers, a duo of coffee shops in Brooklyn that began its life as a coffee cart serving pour-over coffee. In most coffee shops, pour-overs can be a chore—they’re time-intensive, and can take you out of the flow of service. At Drip, pour-overs are designed to be a focal point, a place for customers to talk to baristas and learn more about what they’re drinking.

Nigel opened his first Bushwick location just two months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the surrounding businesses, and that ended up transforming his new space. As one of the only coffee shops in the neighborhood that was open, Drip became a respite for locals during the pandemic’s darkest days, and Nigel noticed that people were ready, even eager, to sit, wait, and talk over a slow cup of coffee.

Ashley: Nigel, I was wondering if you could tell me about growing up with coffee. Did you drink coffee as a kid or did you see others in your life drinking coffee?

Nigel: I don't even know if you can legally call what my mom would make as coffee. But I do know it tasted super good. She had one of these old-school percolators and she would put this pre-ground, freeze-dried stuff in it, but it was loaded up with so much milk and sugar. And for years I thought that's what coffee was, until high school and college.

Then I see people drinking straight black coffee from a bodega, from a Starbucks or something like that. And I'm like, “This stuff is horrible. How can you drink this?”

Fun fact: Before [the idea of Drip Coffee was to serve coffee], it was supposed to be a tea shop, because I just never drank coffee. I just never drank coffee.

Ashley: When did you decide that a coffee shop was the way that you wanted to go instead of the tea shop?

Nigel: Really quickly. After shopping my business plan around, people thought it was ridiculous to try to open a tea shop and not offer any coffee. In hindsight it’s like, “Duh,” but at the time—and I drank a lot of coffee [at this point]—it just didn't make sense if you are going to be a premium tea shop to even serve coffee. To have coffee in a tea shop, a lot of the teas will pick up the scents or would pick up on the coffee notes and it would get imparted onto the leaves.

So I was like, that just doesn't make sense, but the more I looked into it—and then, at the time there was a ton of, well, not a ton, but a handful of tea shops in New York I would go visit and the next time I would go visit, they'd be closed.

Ashley: So your proof was there?

Nigel: Exactly. Unfortunately if you call something a tea shop people just will not go, so I moved into coffee. Like how I approach a lot of things, I really drill down and I have to go through the whole process of learning and different processes and tasting. And the more I tasted, the more I realized that coffee is just as complex, if not more, than rare, fine teas.

I was just really lucky to work with serious coffee professionals and people who were trying to make a career out of coffee as opposed to this is just a job in a coffee shop that they have.

Ashley: Right. Let's step backwards a little bit, because we were talking about the idea that you had initially to open a tea shop, and then you kind of backtracked and decided that you were going to do coffee, but before this was even an idea in your head, you worked in banking and finance.

I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your, I guess let's call it your past life in that industry…

Nigel: Yes, past life.

Ashley: Yeah, let's call it a past life. I know that I like to look at my life—which is a little silly—as almost two chapters, and it's pre- and post-coffee. It's not even really about coffee itself, but it's just about me as a person, which I know that we're going to dig into. So I was wondering if you could tell me about that. Tell me about Nigel's life before coffee.

Nigel: Nigel was a totally different person, as I alluded to earlier. A lot of, I guess you would call it, where I am now in terms of the way I thought about life and the way I thought about relationships and just people in general was so skewed.

I really attribute that to where I worked and the school that I went to. [To say that] a lot of people were antisocial would be an understatement. They were just very not empathetic towards people's feelings or what other people's needs were. Even their approach to business—it was never from the perspective of the consumer or the workers. It was almost always from the perspective of dollars and cents and profitability.

I guess a lot of that got imparted on me because I felt like, “This is how I need to conduct myself if I'm going to work with these people, if I'm going to work in this industry.”

I think the struggle I had with not liking my job—because quite frankly, the money was great—but I just was not happy. I didn't know what it was, but I knew something was missing. If you dread going to work as much as I did, it has to be something else. It wasn't until I started asking those kinds of tough questions. And then I realized that I'm going to have to find an alternate course. It can't just all be about money, which my sole purpose for studying finance and studying economics was because, in my mind, what's more important than making money, you know?

Ashley: Right. And it seems like that perspective was totally normalized for you in the banking world and in the educational systems that you were in.

Nigel: Exactly.

Ashley: I was going to ask: What prompted you to even start asking those questions of yourself? I have to imagine that that's hard to challenge—essentially challenge your entire worldview.

Nigel: I don't think it was one specific instance. It would be like, after work, everybody would go for drinks and for the most part, everybody on the outside looked like they were extremely happy and they were enjoying themselves, but I absolutely hated it. I just did not enjoy that.

I got to a point where I just didn't enjoy it, but it was one of those things I had to do because you don't want to be the weird guy that doesn't hang out with everybody else. It wasn't one specific thing. It was a combination of a lot of different instances. Also, this is over the span of more than a decade of being in situations and sitting down with people that I just didn't enjoy being around.

I had a manager I worked with for six years. I worked at Chase and then they merged with J.P. Morgan and became JPMorgan Chase. And I moved over with him. We were together for my entire tenure at J.P. Morgan. And I didn't know one single thing about his life.

Like he would come in after the weekend and he would say, “Hey, how was your weekend?” “Good.” I’d say, “Oh, how was your weekend?” “Good.” We would never have any serious, in-depth conversations about anything other than the work.

Ashley: That’s so unsettling.

Nigel: I know I keep saying this over and over, but the Nigel that was in university and coming out of college and in a lot of these training positions that I had, that was perfectly OK in my mind. I was perfectly OK. I don't need to get to know you, I'm here to do a job. I'm here to make money and that's it.

But a part of me got to a point where I was like, “I cannot work or be around people that I'm not connected to or I don’t have a genuine connection with.”

Ashley: Was it obvious that opening your own business would be the way to solve that problem? It's an interesting jump to me. I wonder how you went from, “I need to get out of this,” to, “This is the thing I'm going to do next.”

Nigel: It wasn't until working in cafe settings for other people. I kind of always knew I was going to do my own thing. Initially, it was supposed to only take maybe six months—that sounds super arrogant now. I was like, “Oh, for a couple months, I'll work at some coffee shops. And then I'll just open my own [cafe], do my own thing.”

But it was working in cafes. The people I worked with, a lot of the guests that would come into a lot of these places, I would just listen to people and we would have in-depth conversations. And some of these people, I didn't even know their names. But we would talk about life, spirituality, what you actually want to do with your life, not what you do for a living or what you do to make money, but what do you want to do with your life?

These were questions that I just never pondered myself. So it was very interesting to hear people—and unfortunately, a lot of these people were young, a lot younger than I was—but they already were in that mind space.

Ashley: I like that you articulated that, because I felt some of that same anxiety too, when I first started working in coffee, honestly. I had a very similar experience to you where I define my life in kind of these two phases of, “This was my career before and now I work in coffee.”

I remember—I don't know if this is the right analogy for it, or if this is the right way to describe it—but I feel like I remember so much more of my life in the last 10 years than I ever did of the 20-something before that, because it feels like I'm actually living it.

I am physically in a space and I'm interacting with what's around me versus—

Nigel: Going through the motions.

Ashley: Exactly! Or almost being out of body in a way that’s like, “Who's that person doing those things?” That's not me, but it is. And I remember being almost mad about it? Being like, “What took me so long to get here?” Did you feel that at all?

Nigel: Not only did I feel that, but I don't get upset about it because I just think about the amount of people in this world currently who don't even realize that there’s another place to be. They haven't even come to the realization.

Sometimes I cringe thinking about, “Wow, what if I never took that leap of faith and said, ‘You know what? I'm just going to do something else.’”

It's not like I had a ton of money to rest on—which is another regret. I kind of wish I did a better job of saving money or maybe just sticking it out for a few more years so I can actually save some money because I had no idea how financially burdensome it can be trying to work in coffee shops where you're really not being paid a ton of money, and you're still trying to save money and pay bills.

Ashley: Tell me about that first coffee shop job that you got. What do you think were some of the biggest shocks or realizations that you had in that first job?

Nigel: I would have to reiterate what I mentioned earlier: the actual connections with people. I still feel like, even at that point, I was apprehensive about dealing with people one-on-one and having these [conversations] because in my head, I'm like, “Hey, I'm just going to make you this coffee. You’re gonna pay for it, and then you're going to leave. And then I'm going to play with this espresso machine and I'm going to learn what I need to learn so that one day I could open my own coffee shop.”

But I do feel like, with the exception of one or two bad managers, every place I've worked, even if the shop itself wasn't run really well, I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. I never felt like I was wasting my time.

There were a few times where I actually would be working at two different shops at once. But I was never beat down or like I was carrying some burden because I approached it from the perspective of, “I need to learn this. I need to get this.”

Again, like I mentioned, I worked with some people that, to this day, if they left to go start green buying or roasting or even if they're still baristas, they're still actual coffee professionals. I owe a lot of my career to some of these people.

Ashley: You mentioned that you thought it would take you six months to learn all you needed to know before opening a coffee shop. How long did it actually take you, or how long did you work in shops before you took the leap to open your own space?

Nigel: It took more like six or seven years. Unfortunately, I wasn't necessarily ready financially. So I ended up sticking it out for another four or five years. So we're talking like 11, 12 years after leaving corporate and finally…

Ashley: Finally deciding to take the next step.

Nigel: And honestly, it probably would have taken a little longer. I kinda got lucky because my last main job was in a hotel. It was a union job. They paid almost 30+ dollars an hour, plus tips and benefits and everything like that. So if I didn't have that job and I was still trying to put it together little by little with two or three different barista jobs, I probably wouldn't have been able to open at all.

Ashley: At what point did you decide that you felt—maybe not ready, ready is probably not the right word—but what was the moment where you were like, “OK, I'm going to try to do this thing on my own. I'm going to go ahead and try the thing that I set myself up to do almost a decade ago?”

Nigel: I think the main catalyst was a lot of those positions were being eliminated. A lot of these hotels, specifically for unions, they were trying to—there’s really no nice way to say it, but they were trying to kick these union, pension guys out of their jobs.

It got to a point where they said, “Well, we can put you in this pool and we'll try to find you another position at another hotel,” or they would pay a certain amount, depending on how many years you were in the union. You basically take a package and you leave.

I was like, “You know what? I think this is it.”

Ashley: Why a cart first?

Nigel: The cart? I think I just wanted to prove the concept.

I wanted to see if people would gravitate towards just pour-over coffee. If people had a problem waiting three, four minutes, sometimes five minutes for a cup of coffee and if there was an appetite for it.

I think if it wasn't for that cart, if I just went right to opening the shop, I don't know if people would have really understood what I was trying to do. I think I would have just been another coffee shop with some pour-over drippers in it. I think the cart made it where I'm putting my flag in the sand and I'm saying, “This is what Drip stands for.” And luckily it worked.

Ashley: I was thinking about what you said earlier, about having this idea to open a coffee shop and then you were going to work in a coffee shop for six months, obviously that extended to 10 years. Then you opened the cart and I'm wondering—so you have almost these three distinct phases of what Drip Coffee could have looked like in your brain.

You had the first iteration back when you were thinking about leaving your finance job.

You had the second iteration right before you opened the cart.

And then the third iteration, I'm imagining, is the transition from the cart to a physical space. How has your business plan or your vision changed over time?

Nigel: I wish I could say I had this grand master plan, but I just know, especially in the last four, five, six years of working in coffee, I had like my “nine to five,” which was the hotel, but I always moonlighted because there was a ton of really, really cool specialty shops in the city that I wanted to work at. A lot of them were Stumptown accounts and Counter Culture accounts. But a couple of them were independent shops and I just really loved what they were doing.

What I took away from a lot of these shops was they would offer pour-overs, but it was always an afterthought. It was almost one of those things where if you were a barista and you were on bar all day and someone wanted a pour-over, you would immediately get angry because now you have to break your flow to make this pour-over.

That's when it dawned on me. I was like, “But that's the best way to have a cup of coffee.” Instead of building a shop around just the espresso machine, you can build a shop around pour-overs where it doesn't necessarily break the workflow for the barista on bar.

Ashley: You just saying a customer comes in and orders a pour-over harkens in me a feeling that I thought I didn't have any more, but I'm like, “Oh my God, why'd you order a pour-over???? There are seven people behind you! What's going on?”

Nigel: Exactly. Another thing is I could easily be that person in line because I just really love pour-overs, but I almost always would never get what I wanted because knowing what that barista's going through, I just wouldn't order it. And I was like, “I think it would be cool if I integrated pour-overs into the service.”

Ashley: Right. Which is something that is so great, especially because we were both mentioning, we've both been baristas. We both have been the barista who gets that order for a pour-over which interrupts service.

But you've also been the barista who, on your Saturday off—Who am I kidding? Saturday is not your day off—your Tuesday off, you go to another coffee shop to go visit your friend. And you're like, “I'm not ordering a pour-over. I don’t want to fuck with their shit,” but that's actually the thing that you want. It's really cool to take a step backwards and say, “How do I design a system where this is front and center versus this is a throwaway thought on a menu?”

Nigel: Exactly.

Ashley: You've worked in New York coffee for over a decade. I worked in New York coffee around the 2010 era. I think that you've seen the shifts in coffee and the way that New York coffee shops have approached trends in general—in the early 2010s, pour-overs were a really big deal.

Then towards the end of my tenure in New York, it was like we were trying to eliminate them. We were like, “It's all about batch brew. It's all about fast efficiency.” As you worked in coffee and saw these different things come and go, what were you excited about? What were you bummed about? Because it feels like we never, we just never really incorporated pour-overs [well].

Nigel: Never, never. And I think like you mentioned, that's when I started realizing that I'm going to try to build a model around the pour-overs. I still didn't really have a clear, concise way in which I was going to do it— I really still don't know—but I knew that was going to be my niche, so to speak.

Once a lot of these shops started going, “Well, yeah, you can get really good quality with batch brew too,” I immediately pushed back on that because typically it was a lot of these people who were coffee geniuses, but I also realized that they were now coffee shop owners and they are trying to think of ways to streamline business. Or they're trying to think of ways to not necessarily have three people on because they’re thinking about labor costs.

I've had owners say things like, “If he's doing this pour-over, how is he going to empty the trash, or how's he going to wipe the tables, or how's he going to do dishes?” In the back of my head, I'm like, “It's a coffee shop. You hired well-trained, quality baristas to make coffee, not to wipe tables down, not to do the dishes. So if I'm paying you to make coffee, I want to create an environment, a situation where you really don't lose focus on anything. Your main focus is the coffee.”

I'm lucky enough to have people who want to work as coffee professionals. This is not just, “I need a job while I do X,” or “I need a job while I do Y.” The people that work with me now love coffee to the point where they bring in their own coffee. They bring in their own equipment. They're trying things that even when the shop closes, they sometimes all meet up there.

It became exactly what I envisioned it to be, which is a space for people who want to learn more about coffee, a place for them to feel comfortable about it, but it’s not unapproachable to the layman or unapproachable to the person who doesn't know much. They may make a French press or make a pour-over at home, but they want to learn more about it.

Ashley: I love that because I feel like for so long, and I know that I've especially felt this in my coffee career, there were times where I felt like liking coffee wasn't cool. To nerd out on coffee was not encouraged sometimes.

I feel like I started my career as that barista who would bring in their own coffees and [say], “Let's try this, let's do that.” But then there was a time where I felt like, “Oh, this is not a thing that I should care about. I should care about efficiency. I should care about just making money.”

I have to imagine for someone whose background was in finance, that had to be an interesting dichotomy to balance. How do you make a profitable business, a responsible business, but at the same time, something that feels true to what you want? You're like, I want to invest in pour-overs, I care about pour-over coffee. How do I make this work?

Nigel: Therein lies the dilemma. Ultimately, like you said, if you're not making money, if you’re not profitable, you're not going to be in business long.

I think I was telling somebody just this morning, the first buildout for the location in Bushwick, I built a space out so that it can quickly [be disassembled], like if I had to close the shop, it would literally take a day to disassemble everything and just walk away. I was not planning on the long-term.

I'm just now talking to the individuals who built out my second location about going back to Bushwick and doing a proper build-out because—OK, it's working, we’re going to be in business for a while, so I should probably set things up correctly. But I had no idea if it was going to work at all, but I did know that I'm either going to do it right or I'm not going to do it at all.

Ashley: It seems like you were very concept-driven. You knew what your concept was going to be and you designed the space to address that.

I was looking at pictures of Drip Coffee Makers before we hopped on and I was like, “Oh, you can see the pour-overs. They're right there. They're in front and they are facing the customer. Therefore, as a barista, I do not have to turn my back and go make a pour-over,” which was the setup that a lot of the cafes that I worked at versus other cafes where—this was actually a really ingenious move—the espresso machine was right next to the register.

So if I was steaming milk, I could ring up a customer and I was like, “Oh, well, this makes sense for an espresso-forward cafe,” but I've worked in a hundred cafes where the pour-over bar is somewhere else. Which doesn't make sense if you want to invest in pour-overs—if you want people to celebrate it or see it or be excited about it.

Nigel: It was a lot of trial and error, even, even something as simple as dialing in coffees, having them pre-dosed.

I wanted to get it down to three minutes, three-and-a-half minutes. I didn't want it to be longer than the time it takes to make a latte. Because in my head I was like, “If you can get people used to waiting three minutes for an espresso with steam milk, then if they really enjoy pour-overs, they'll wait two to three minutes, three-and-a-half minutes for the pour-over.”

Ashley: Right. And it takes that intentional type of thought. “Oh, this is a timed event. People might not be used to waiting a certain amount of time, but maybe they're used to waiting, like you said, three-and-a-half minutes for a latte. So how can I make those two experiences—one that people are familiar with, one that people maybe aren't as familiar with—as easy to understand as possible?

Nigel: Exactly. And after spending a summer with that cart, and noticing that people had no problem waiting, because they know what you do and they know you're doing something special, they know this is not generic, that is away from what they typically would get in the coffee shop—the waiting part becomes a part of the show.

Ashley: Right, especially because you're facing them. So you can talk about what you're brewing. You can discuss whatever's happening in the day.

I was reading that article that you were interviewed for in Taste, and something you said that really resonated was about value and how value is created. You're literally, through the physical choices that you make or the way that you're talking about coffee, creating value, and people will buy into that as long as you create that option for them to buy into it.

One thing that is kind of miraculous in the face of all of this is that you opened your brick-and-mortar location two months before COVID hit.

Nigel: (laughs) Yeah.

Ashley: So what was that experience like for you? Did you stay open throughout the pandemic?

Nigel: I stayed open throughout. It's funny, because I would always jokingly say when I first opened, I put on the front door: Every day, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Throughout the pandemic, I couldn't hire anybody. I think legally in New York you couldn't make somebody come to work, but you can keep your business open if you were the owner. So the only way I could stay open was if I was the only one working.

People would come in and they’d be like, “Hey, nobody would be mad at you if you closed a little early, if you left a little early or if you didn't open every day,” and I'm like, “I already put it on the door. I gotta show up.”

A lot of things happened that I feel, I guess it was good karma or just good timing, or like all the stars were aligned. That location is maybe two or three blocks from the train station, but it's around the corner on a pretty residential block. That's probably why I got such a good deal on the rent.

Initially, going back to my quick escape in case the brick-and-mortar didn't work, I was like, “I'll be on the sleepy block. It won't be too busy.” To me, this was supposed to be the next step up from the cart where I'm just going to keep proving this concept to see if it actually works. But because we were on a residential block, when the mandate came down and people stopped going to the office, I had a captive audience. I had a two-, three-, four-block radius of people who needed to get out of the house.

There was literally nothing else, nothing else opened. There was a juice bar that served coffee, but no one went there for the coffee. I think people needed an outlet. They needed to take a walk. And I didn't realize how much I needed [the coffee shop] until after things started to settle down and opened back up a bit.

I wasn't in the shops as much as I was before. I would still wake up in the morning. I would still go to the shop and I would sit around and talk to people as they came in. I thank God for it because I really believed that during COVID, in its peak, I got to ignore it because I was completely inundated with keeping the doors open and keeping the lights on at the shop. By the time I got home, I was too exhausted to really pour over the news like a lot of people did. Just thinking of the death toll and the amount of people who were losing their livelihoods and their jobs and family members … when I think back on it now, I could easily see somebody can slip into a super dark place.

Ashley: One thing that I have to imagine the pandemic proved to you, and maybe you knew it just based on your dedication to pour-over coffee, or maybe this came afterwards, but I have to imagine that the power of connection and the power of connecting over a cup of coffee really became crystal-clear to you. Tell me about that experience, about what it was like to serve coffee to people during a time when a lot of people couldn't connect with most other people.

Nigel: Like I alluded to earlier, coffee was probably the reason why they started coming, but it was so obvious that people needed to connect on a physical level with other human beings.

I spent so much more time talking and counseling people and not necessarily telling them what they need to do, but just giving my opinion on what they could do or what they should do if they needed X, Y, Z…

I was able to talk myself out of despair because I had this extended family of people that I had to show up for. As difficult as it sounds, looking back on it now, I think it would be difficult for me to now start that up again, but I can't remember one morning where I had difficulty getting up out of bed to get to work. I felt obligated. I have to be there for these people.

Anytime I speak about it, I start getting emotional because, going back to old Nigel in the past life, just to see what type of person I am now is amazing.

Ashley: I think it's really special to get that opportunity to almost live two separate lives. Like you were saying earlier, I don't think a lot of people get to experience that. So to see your life in these two very different planes is—I don't know.

I have that same thought a lot of, “What would have happened to me if I had never quit teaching? If I had accepted this was going to be the path that my life was going, if I didn't get to know me?” I think about that a lot too, and I think about it, especially in these moments of testing the choices that you've made or testing the limits of your potential. I don't know…

I totally get where you're coming from, and I'm really happy that other people have experienced this because it's just really cool. Sometimes it's scary, but it's really cool.

I was wondering too—this is a little more tactical versus emotional—but do you think that these last 18 months have proven the value of pour-over coffee to people? I can imagine now that people are so excited to get something special at a place that they’re like, “Yeah, I'll wait four minutes for a pour-over. Cool, great!”

Nigel: Right. And it's an affordable luxury; it’s one of those things where it's not like a fancy dinner. It's a fancy cup of coffee.

The team that I have of coffee professionals, people look forward to coming and seeing these guys the same way they look forward to come to see me. I spent all morning at the shop and I've spoken to people who were given a sign to go meet someone.

For example, one of the baristas would say, “Hey, I know somebody who's selling cameras, if you want to start taking pictures,” or, “Oh, I know someone who plays a guitar and they're looking for someone to play a gig.” The coffee shop didn’t lose its actual purpose, which is for people to meet and connect. But to have them connect around really, really good coffee, to me, is important. It’s tantamount. It's nice to have a good space, but it's also even better if you are getting what you paid for.

Ashley: Is there anything that you'd want people to know about you listening to this episode?

Nigel: Nothing in particular, just that I’m somebody who found what they love doing—and as corny as it sounds, that should be everybody's goal in life, no matter what that thing is.

One of my guests started making jewelry during quarantine and she would come in and she would joke about it: “It's just something I need to do to take my mind off of what's going on around me.”

Within six, seven, eight months, she has this ridiculously crazy big following on Etsy and she made a business out of it. And this is just from finding something you enjoy doing and just pursuing it with a passion. I always feel like the money or the success will come as long as you chase your passion.

Ashley: Nigel, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

Nigel: Well, thank you. I appreciate you asking and I apologize for the rain. It started raining again.

Ashley: It's like it came in at the perfect time.

This Boss Barista episode is brought to you by Urnex.

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