Photos by Richard Lovrich
“I was tired of people coming up and buying another latte because they wanted the foam to be perfect,” Katryn Malen says, pointing to a picture box installed on the counter of her Schenectady cafe, Graham’s Coffee Parlor. In October, the box sports a Halloween theme with cobwebs and skeletons. It’s simple, but the creation gives customers who want to post the perfect picture of their beverage a playful setting, putting a unique spin on social media issued from her establishment while functioning as free advertising.
It’s the sort of creative and veteran move that makes Graham’s more than just another place to get coffee tucked in the strip malls and big-box stores that make up Central Avenue. It’s the kind of inspiration and expertise that Malen has built up after years of managing a coffee franchise in New York City and working at some of the top purveyors of coffee in the Capital Region like Little Pecks and Stacks.
“I just reached a point where I had exceeded everything that I could do for other people. I opened up Little Pecks and I did everything there, so after that, I knew, ‘I can do this,’” she says. “I’ve worked in different parts of the restaurant industry before and just being in coffee shops is the best part because you’re just making people happy. When you’re a server there are a lot of moving parts and it’s stressful and there are so many things for the customer to get upset about but when it comes to being in a coffee shop, the environment is just so lovely when it’s right. So I wanted to make a place where everything is right.”
Once she’d decided to go out on her own, Malen moved into her parent’s basement and began the search for the right property. The search brought her back home in a sense—to a Niskayuna building that has been in her family for decades, serving as office space. “I finally decided, ‘This is here and there’s nothing here and I live here. Why isn’t there anything here?’”
Her family helped her through the demolition and construction process—tearing out the old interiors and hanging drywall in the new space.
While chain coffee shops operate down Wolf Road and along Central, they are very impersonal. After assessing the area Malen said to herself, “I don’t know who’s going to come in here and I don’t know who’s in all these cars that drive through every day, but I know if I open a coffee shop, there are people that drink coffee and they’re never gonna not drink coffee…So it has to work. It just has to. I had like an hour of doubt before opening.”
The shop is busy with a crowd made up of locals, students and commuters.
Malen had a vision in mind for the interior. Having worked in cosmetology for a while, she had grown to enjoy salon illustrations from the ͐80s, so she enlisted someone to design a motif around that. But the results didn’t match her vision.
“My mom said, ‘If you want it done, you have to do it yourself. Nobody’s going to get inside your brain so you just have to do it.’ So I somehow figured out how to use Adobe Illustrator just enough,” she says, motioning to the illustrations of friends and family members that dot the cafe’s pearl white walls.
They lend vibrant energy to the space. The atmosphere is crisp, friendly, bubbly, welcoming. Not unlike its owner and creator. It also reflects her deep family connections.
“The whole time I did this, I thought, ‘How amazing.’ Because business is so personal. When you run a small business, it is your life, it is personal. I am the brand, literally, whether I’m comfortable with that or not. And for people to come in and see all of these moments that I was part of matters to me.”
Graham’s serves as a distinct alternative to the impersonal spaces that surround it—a gun shop, chain fast food, a Target and more common strip mall drivel.
Malen wants to make her customers happy while maintaining a sense of her personal taste, but she’s learned to compromise. She’s taken tomato juice off the menu. “I would have a virgin Bloody Mary any day but I realized the other day, it’s winter and no one’s ordering it so let’s take it off the menu,” she explains
Malen makes her own flavored drinks and tries to add less sugar than the chains. “But if you want it sweet. I’ll make it sweet,” she says, laughing.
It speaks to the larger lesson she’s learned since opening and the advice she would give to other young entrepreneurs looking to start break out on their own.
“You have to listen to people, especially if you’re going into something that focuses on customer service,” she says. “I see that as the biggest problem and every single place that I’ve worked—you have business owners who do what they like and it has nothing to do with what their customers like. Just listen to the people around you, especially if you’re going into customer service and think about what you can offer to your community. Because if you’re going into a business that has anything to do with people, you have to give them what they want, but also stay true to you.”