In the year since husband-and-wife team Alfredo Tinozo and Laura Leonardi opened the doors of the Monkey Cup, the little café has become a pillar of the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in Harlem. It’s a community gathering spot, a haven for people seeking great coffee, and an unpretentious learning ground for anyone curious about what makes a quality cup. When the shop celebrated its first birthday just a couple of weeks ago, the store was teeming with people stopping by to congratulate the owners. Many brought flowers.“It was so overwhelming seeing that people really care about the café,” Laura said. But she wasn’t surprised. “We’re pretty much a sensation around here. I think if you do something with love, you receive love back."
And it shows. From the handmade chalkboard that customers brought Laura and Alfredo when their original one broke, to the number of passersby who stop to talk to them when they're sitting outside, there’s no doubt that the Monkey Cup is beloved by the community.
Opening their own café wasn’t always the plan for Laura and Alfredo. In fact, it happened almost spontaneously. They moved to Harlem six years ago from Miami when Alfredo, an opera singer, received a scholarship to attend CUNY. The couple loved their new neighborhood, but they were frustrated at the unavailability of a good cup of coffee. Both originally from Venezuela, they grew up on the stuff: “I was drinking coffee since I was five, six years old. Not even early in the morning: at dinner!” Laura laughs. “It’s normal there. So we really know our good coffee from bad coffee.”
Troops of children pass the café on their way to and from school, and for this reason Laura and Alfredo were inspired to brighten up the outside of their storefront. They built a small wooden fence around the tree on the sidewalk in front of the Monkey Cup and planted sunflowers.
Noticing the effort Laura and Alfredo were making to dress up their sliver of the sidewalk, the Audubon Project approached them and asked if they would be open to having a mural of birds painted on their roll-down metal security gate—so that when children passed by early in the morning, before they opened, that’s what they would see. “But we don’t have a gate—so we convinced the whole block to get their gates painted by Audubon,” Laura says.
She and Alfredo have the same priorities that the founders of Irving Farm, Steve and David, had when they opened their first coffee shop twenty years ago: providing quality products and fostering community in the neighborhood. But another big part of their operation is their dedication to demystifying the brewing techniques they use. Kyoto drip cold brew coffee makers are on display in wooden frames, and the rest of their brewing equipment faces outward from behind the counter. Curious customers can watch the barista prepare their drinks and ask questions—which they often do. The customers at the Monkey Cup are highly inquisitive, which Laura and Alfredo love, even if it means learning to have extra patience when the café is busy. “It’s about sharing the knowledge and the love of coffee,” she says.