Sometimes the push to finally do that thing you've always talked about arrives in the form of disaster.
Almost two years ago there was a fire in the building that houses the Downtube, the well-known bike shop across from Washington Park in Albany. It took a year of reconstruction and renovation before the shop's showroom reopened last March.
At the time of the fire, Emma Fullem -- whose parents, Robert Fullem and Marilyn Kaplan, own the Downtube -- was living in the San Francisco area, working for an organization that helps people learn how to be food entrepreneurs. And as renovation work on the building started up, she got a call from her dad: Come home and let's open a coffee shop.
So she did. And they did.
This weekend 3Fish Coffee -- located in a former garage space alongside the Downtube -- has its soft opening. It'll be operating weekends this month and next before opening full time in March.
We stopped in recently to get a look at the new coffee spot and talk with Emma Fullem about the family story behind the shop, being a part of the neighborhood, and the search for good English muffins.
If you'd like see a handful of photos of the space, they're at the top in large format -- click or scroll all the way up.
Why a coffee shop and why right now?
A coffee shop has been in the family plans for a long time. My dad opened up the Downtube in 1972 over on Central Ave, moved into this building in 1980. And since the 80s he's been talking about opening a coffee shop and putting one in a bike store. He actually went down to a class in New York City in the 80s about how to open a coffee shop and this was before Starbucks came to the East Coast, and he's been regretting the day he didn't because he had a friend who sold out to Starbucks and made millions.
So he's wanted to do it forever. We have an older sister, and we'd be on family vacations and we'd be sketching these designs for a cafe that would go in the garage of the Downtube. And the three of us had also wanted to open a cafe -- if not here, then somewhere else -- later in life.
The name is part of the story as well. My mom used to point out this bumper sticker to us, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." And my parents are together, so she has a man who has a bicycle store and if all the fish had bicycles then business would be booming and the sea would be really fun.
So it became our family motto. And the three of us we're, like, we're going to open this cafe one day and call it 3 Fish and a Bicycle, and we're the three fish.
After the fire, my dad was like, OK, well if not now then when? So he called me, and I was out in California, and he said move home, let's open a coffee shop. And I was hemming and hawing for a while. But my mom was like, 'We're going to need a name for this coffee shop.' And I'm like, what do you mean? We already have a name. We've had a name for 15 years -- it's 3 Fish and a Bicycle. And that got shortened since the bicycles are all next door.
So the fire was the big impetus. If we weren't doing construction on the building, it wouldn't have seemed possible or feasible considering we've been kicking the idea around for 25 years, which is how hold I am. The fire really made all this possible in some ways and really gave us an opportunity to re-envision both what the Downtube was and what we could offer to downtown Albany. And adding in the coffee shop not as an individual thing, but tying it into the bike community and how we relate to the city, was really important.
And that's something I'm really excited about. I went to Albany High and graduated from there, as did Abby and our older sister. We grew up in the area, we've been a part of downtown Albany for a long time, and getting to double down -- OK, let's rebuild better, let's change what we offer to the city.
When people come here, what should they expect? What sort of experience do you want them to have?
First and foremost, more than anything else, welcoming. That's something we've tried to put into the design, and it's really hard. It's not something you can just Google 'welcoming design ideas.' But I want it to feel like it's a place people come and feel like they're comfortable. So that was really important to us as we were designing it, not to be cold, not to feel too industrial, not to make people feel like the coffee was too high-brow for them.
We've been in coffee shops where people say, like, 'It's a real science... you wouldn't understand it.' And I'm like, what do you mean I wouldn't understand?! Give me a try.
It's coffee. I drink it, right?
Yeah, I like it or I don't like it. And then if you want to talk more about the nitty gritty, let's go there. But don't be rude about it. And there can be that culture in coffee.
So that was really important to us, that people feel welcomed and comfortable here.
They should expect really good coffee. We're going with Irving Farm Coffee Roasters in Millerton. They've been roasting for 20 years and they have really well-regarded cafes in New York City, which is how I found about them. And they do all their own sourcing, they work with farms, they work with the same farmers year after year so they'll buy crops a year in advance so farmers can make investments, which is really important. And as someone who studied a lot about local food and sustainable food -- which is what my undergrad degree was in -- it's really exciting to see that in coffee and be able to participate in that.
It's great coffee. It's technically specialty coffee, so it's really highly graded and rated. And I've gone to a lot of training to be able to do the best that I can do with that coffee. They have their own training labs, one in New York City and one in the Hudson Valley and I've been training there.
Every small business owner talks about how starting and operating is a constant learning process. So what are some of the things that you've learned along the way to this point?
I would say the fluidity of opening a business, how flexible I've needed to stay. It's very much a necessity.
For example: We're working in an old building. This space, from here forward [the front half of the coffee shop space] the city says is the oldest building on the park, [from] the 1840s. That brick wall [opposite the counter] is actually original to the building. So working in an old building -- which is my mom's speciality, she's a preservation architect -- means you have to stay incredibly fluid to things that come up. So we were part way through the project and the city came and said, 'You need to take down the chimney.' Oh, so the chimney comes down -- that changes everything, you have redesign around that. There's been things like, I want to put this here -- no, you can't because that's where the weight bearing stud is and nobody expected that.
Also in terms of I had ideas six months ago that just didn't turn out to be feasible. We're going to be offering a toast menu and I originally wanted to do English muffins, and I looked and looked and I was trying to find a local vendor that did really good English muffins. I wanted to work with a local baker, I thought that would be so easy. It'd be great, nobody does English muffins... and nobody does them because you can't find English muffins. So that was something I spent weeks on, looking for these English muffins and got it down to, oh, I could bring them in from Ohio -- these really think ones. Or maybe I could buy my own English muffin press... no. OK, so toast.
So staying fluid like that and being able to within the constraints I was given, that was something I really had no idea what it took before.
You mentioned thinking about the role of the bike shop and the coffee shop in this community. When you look to the future, a year, five years from now, what do you want this place to be for this neighborhood?
I think I want it to be a gathering place. There's this idea of third spaces in urban planning and design. There's home. There's work. And there's libraries, or coffee shops, or the place that you go when you're no in the first two [types of] places. And there's a third community there that urban planners say make for vibrant communities. It's where you see the same people regularly and feel like you have a stake in. It could be a grocery store, it could be a gas station -- but you have to feel an attachment to it.
And I want this to feel like that. I want this to be a place where people are like, 'Oh, I live in Park South, I live near Lark Street, you can usually catch me at 3Fish. Have you been there? You should definitely check it out. They know a lot about the neighborhood.'
I want it to be a place where people feel like they can go from here into the rest of the city and in some ways feel like a home base.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Toward making 3 Fish that sort of place, Fullem said they're hoping to host events such as open mics, and board game nights, and yoga. She's also looking forward to the extension of the Madison Ave bike lanes to their block and hosting bike-related events.
3 Fish Coffee
466 Madison Ave
Albany, NY 12208
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.