On March 1st 2012 Emmanuel (“Manny”) Pena moved to Harlem, and immediately started on opening Astor Row Café, at 404 Lenox Ave on 131st Street. This location which was vacant for four years, was not his first choice, but turned out to be a perfect location. Named after the historic 28 Harlem landmark houses in a “row” on that block, the Café was originally to be just a tea house, but transformed into so much more. Manny in his passion, worked 18 hours a day, doing the construction all by himself, from March 6th to April 21st and opened the café on Earth Day April 22, 2012 (The day after hurricane Sandy). Manny said “I wanted to open a place that is safe and laid back for everyone.” That concept led to the motto “be nice or go home”, which is also the password for the free Wi-Fi in the Café.
Manny Pena believes that Astor Row Café is more than a coffee shop, but by working as community can make a difference for everyone in the neighborhood, such as the free promotion of local artists, and family values. Manny feels that people need to “become more human” and needs to refrain from letting technology take over their lives.
What started out as a coffee-tea house, he started to serve food in the Café. When I asked how that came about he told me that “I started cooking for my kids”, so he began selling cup-cakes, than omelets, and after that whatever his customers wanted, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and breakfast. In all of the food, they use 90% organic and sustainable ingredients.
(Manny making me my favorite latte, he always remembers how I like it. Perfect!)
As for the décor, Manny started out with a very downtown trendy look, (“I wanted one big beam from the ceiling, with everything else centered around it”) comfortable plush booths, funky art décor chairs and tables, but in the last year and a half has made it more of an industrial look.
( Chelsea Goding and Neil from the Harlem Art’s Festival)
I asked why he changed to a more ridged uncomfortable setting, he told me that “I listened to the business” and went from a seating of 33-56 to a seating of 50-70. Making all the wood fixtures in the café by hand, all the wood used was taken from a barn in Monticello Virginia, and an old trout factory, which is all “American Oak wood.”
Downstairs in the basement, Manny has created what he calls the “Nursery” were he supports about 50 local artists, giving workshops like, glass, metal wielding, ceramic, and wood shops.
When I asked “Manny” what he was most proud of, he answered “the community that we were able to build.” Manny created a “go-fund” for a disabled customer whose wheelchair broke, and raised $5,000 to get him a new one. On Thanksgiving Manny gave away 1,000 meals to the local homeless, aids patients, and battered woman shelters. Manny is not only a pleasure to know, but also is very in touch with his customers. You can find him often playing ball with his customers children outside in front of the Café, or walking around the shop holding customers babies as if they were his own kids.
(Barista’s Betty Etheredge and Junior Lopez)
Astor Row Café has used a number of coffee providers, such as Irving Farm, Stump town and La Colome, but about two years ago they started blending/Roasting their own coffee, after careful studying and experimenting with the many aspects of the process to create their own perfect blend.
(Be Nice or Go Home!)