There have been coffee houses in New York City since the Dutch “bought” Manhattan from the local Algonquins. One of the first successfull coffeeshop chains actually predated Starbucks by half a century and surprisingly had an intimate connection to the 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt’s children — Theodore, Jr., Archie, Ethel, and Kermit — and their cousin Philip. Opened their first establishment dedicated to coffee consumption at 108 West 44th Street in November 1919 as the “Brazilian Coffee House”. It was Kermit who first pitched the idea to the family having spent a few years in South America exploring the Amazon Basin of Brazil with his father, managing a bank in Buenos Aires, he became a fan of the region’s coffeehouses, which served up fresh-ground beans.
The first Roosevelts’ Brazilian Coffee House opened to considerable buzz with the a headline in the New York Times announcing “Roosevelts Start Coffee House Chain; Houses Similar to the Ancient Institutions of London to be Established.” The interior design of the coffeeshop was by Ethel Roosevelt. The walls, papered with a green and gold print of Brazilian bamboo, were hung with portraits of celebrated coffee lovers, such as Voltaire (who allegedly downed 50 cups a day), Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt himself. Thirty small oak tables and chairs were grouped around the brownstone shop. Each table at the Brazilian Coffee House had a compartment furnished with ink, envelopes and paper (inscribed with “Brazilian Coffee House”). Dictionaries and encyclopedias were available. “What we desire to do,” Philip Roosevelt told a reporter, “is to provide a place for people to come, where they can talk, write letters, eat sandwiches and cake, and above all, drink real coffee.”
The rapid growth of the enterprise was likely fueled by the institution of alcohol Prohibition, which had passed in January 1919 . The Roosevelts filled the need in New York’s social life for that public third space. The Brazilian location, in the theater district, was a favorite gathering place for actors, artists, newspapermen and musicians. Among its patrons was the then little-known purveyor of pulpy American gothic fiction, H.P. Lovecraft; his circle of friends, known as the Kalem Club, was known to frequent the Double R. Lovecraft even wrote a fevered ode, “On the Double R Coffee House.”
The coffee houses thrived but the Roosevelts ended their involvement in 1928. In that year a New York Times article describes the purchase of the business by husband and wife Zivko and Aneta Magdich. The purchase combined the couple’s entrepreneurial spirit and a romantic attachment to the business, since it was at the Double R that the couple had first met. Unfortunately, the coffeeshop chain seems to have failed along with New York City’s economy after the 1929 stock market crash.