Business of the Month: McNulty’s Tea and Coffee, 109 Christopher Street
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Some people say that love makes the world go round. Good for them. For the rest of us, who can’t rely on that fickle mistress to get going in the morning, there is caffeine, a miracle drug transmitted through elixirs that have been refined over hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years to delight all senses. Fragrant, warm, seductively hued, and complex in flavor, a cup of tea or coffee can be at once comforting, relaxing, and invigorating. It comes in hundreds of varieties, and well over a hundred of them is what you’ll find at our February 2023 Business of the Month, McNulty’s Tea and Coffee, a Greenwich Village institution itself well over a hundred years old.
Old-fashioned down to the Victorian font on its signage, McNulty’s transports you back to a time when Villagers shopped for essentials at the many specialty stores on Christopher Street. The interiors of the small, dimly lit store only reinforces that impression with its multitude of glass jars, classic scoops and scales, rows of rubber stamps, and piles of burlap sacks.
You may register all this only subconsciously because, upon entering, the smell of tea and freshly ground coffee will overwhelm your senses. The store has been bringing both beverages to the neighborhood since its inception in 1895, but not in the variety that one finds today.
McNulty’s started out as a general store at 125 Christopher Street and likely carried no more than one or two types of tea and coffee then. Since being launched by its eponymous founder, a retired judge, the business has changed hands about half a dozen times, most recently in 1980. Current owner David Wong recounts that his brother took up at McNulty’s part-time during college to pay for his tuition. Over the course of a couple of years, he developed an interest in tea and coffee. Not long after, what started out as a part-time job started looking like an opportunity — a business that his family could own and operate. And that is precisely what McNulty’s became. He and his father ran the shop at first, with David, who was then a junior high school student, coming in to help out on weekends. These days, David runs the place — his father retired a couple of years ago — along with his brother, two nephews, and a niece.
Under the Wongs, the store’s selection has grown substantially. It was already a coffee and tea specialty shop when they acquired it. But access to more numerous far-flung varieties, as well as the diversification and development of customer preferences, has led the Wongs to increase their selection to include coffee from all major producing countries, and teas of every major category. Some of the latest additions made at customers’ behest include a selection of Nepalese teas, green, white and chai, and a range of German fruit tisanes. If you’re new to tea, however, and can’t tell your Snow Dragon Yellow Buds from your Iron Goddess of Mercy, you could do far worse than start with David’s favorite tea, Golden Monkey, a slightly fruity golden-tipped Congou-style Chinese black tea with notes of burnt honey. Alternatively, you could let notable past customers be your guides. McNulty’s keeps record of custom blends by regulars. So if you want to drink tea like Katherine Hepburn (Golden Darjeeling, Sri Lankan black, and Golden Assam, in equal proportions), here is your chance. As a third alternative, you could get the Old Judge’s Secret Blend and have a cup of joe in honor of the store’s founder.
Asked to explain the secret behind McNulty’s lengthy tenure, Dave’s answers focus on luck, luck that they have managed to secure long-term leases from reasonable landlords, and luck that business has remained constant. “We have been fortunate that we’ve been busy. We’ve always kept our mojo going even during difficult economic periods, which we’re very thankful for.” Luck, however, is only part of the story behind McNulty’s mojo. The other part tells of how Wongs’ management of the store draws a steady stream of long-standing customers, some of whom are following in the footsteps of their parents and even grandparents, as well as tourists, who flock there to personally check out what is regularly written up as one of the best, classic stores in New York City. Add to that mail order customers, who have accounted for 15% to 35% of sales since the pandemic, and who can generally expect their orders to be filled on the same day that they are placed, and you’ve got yourself the recipe for a successful business, one capable of weathering even a pandemic with aplomb.
If the Wongs have been lucky, it is in this: they’ve built their business around a recession-proof product. For those who count a morning cup of tea or coffee as a necessity, money is no object. For those who consider it an — all things considered — affordable luxury, McNulty’s is a veritable bargain, selling for cents and in high-quality what retails for three or five dollars at a coffee shop. Either way, a visit to McNulty’s is its own reward, a view into an establishment rendered iconic and unique through longevity, by hewing to a successful business formula for decades.
Because love comes and goes, but McNulty’s delicious tea and coffee are there for you every morning, we are thrilled to name McNulty’s Tea and Coffee our February 2023 Business of the Month.
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