The starting point of the day for millions of people around the world, matcha is a healthy source of caffeine that originated in China over 1,000 years ago. The first specialty matcha cafe in New York City, MatchaBar opened in Williamsburg in the Fall of 2014. An immediate success, MatchaBar’s second location launched just a year later in Chelsea at 256 West 15th St.
Growth for MatchaBar has expanded beyond its second location, as a retail product line is launching on New Year’s Day 2016. In fact, while interviewing MatchaBar’s leaders – brothers Graham and Max Fortgang – they were answering my questions from the conference room of a New Jersey factory where their first 80,000 bottles were being produced. Alfred Coffee in Los Angeles is said to be one of the big supporters of MatchaBar’s retail line.
In our Q&A for Downtown, Graham and Max not only proved inspirational as New York City businessmen, but as family members able to do business together. They explained how other family members are involved with the operations of MatchaBar, and how “hustle” has been commonplace within the Fortgang family tree. But they also helped clear up how tea and matcha are different from one another.
For more info on MatchaBar’s products, locations and the people behind such, click on over to www.matchbarnyc.com.
When did you first become caffeine addicts?
Graham Fortgang: We first became caffeine addicts around the age of 15. Once we were in high school it was all over.
What was your first exposure to matcha?
G: Max and I were exposed to matcha about three years ago in the East Village by chance. We were looking for an alternative to espresso and energy drinks due to long study hours and late nights in the music industry. Max started making it for us every morning and played around with all preparation styles and before we knew it we were hooked.
What keeps you loyal to tea rather than coffee?
Max Fortgang: We are not loyal to tea, we are loyal to matcha. There is a HUGE difference. Matcha is a fine powder derived from finely ground great tea leaves. You then take the powder and whisk it into water with a bamboo whisk to create matcha. The main difference between tea and matcha, is that you steep tea leaves in a bag and then remove them before consumption. With matcha, you consume the entire leaf, resulting in more caffeine, antioxidants, and L’thenaine. We see matcha as its own category.
How did you first encounter the farm in Nisho, Japan that you source your products from?
G: We were actually on a phone call with a translator and somehow it led to me and my best childhood friend on a flight to Japan. It was one of the most terrifying, but rewarding experiences of my life. Our farming partners believed in our vision from day one!
Is there anywhere in the U.S. that’d be an acceptable source for matcha?
G: No, the conditions aren’t right in the U.S. However, technology will definitely change this in the future. There are some brave pioneers, including some friends in Washington State that are experimenting as we speak!
On your website it says, “good things come to those who hustle.” How do you define hustling?
M: I love this question! Dictionary.com defines it as, “to proceed or work rapidly or energetically.” To us hustle conveys not an action but a way of life, a common thread that ties the individuals in our community together. The hustle manifests itself in our generations’ entrepreneurial spirit and we see this in the start-up tech world. There is amazing social change that is taking place, in the exploration of new industries all together such as Virtual Reality and in the advancement of science and medicine. That being said, the hustle has always existed. There is a certain energy and sense of purpose that drives the human spirit to go above and beyond to see a vision become a reality — that is the hustle.
Who was it that inspired you to go to the DIY route as an entrepreneur?
G: Our family was our inspiration to take the DIY route as an entrepreneur. It all started with my great-grandfather, who came to this country with next to nothing. While navigating a new country and culture, he turned a gig as a door-to-door jewelry peddler into a thriving business. This business allowed him to then put three generations of my family members through school. To accomplish anything you have to believe that you are going to defy the odds, which my family has been believing since before I was born.
A lot of siblings were not made to work together, members of Oasis, The Kinks and the Black Crowes being some examples of that. When in your childhood did you realize that you two work together well?
G: We realized that we could work together in the early days. I remember a lemonade stand that we use to work at during childhood summers. Max made the lemonade, I was the salesman on the street. Decades later, nothing has changed. Max is known as the “mad hatter” behind MatchaBar’s signature drinks and is constantly experimenting with various milks, flavors and spices. I focus more on business development and the expansion of MatchaBar.
MatchaBar has two locations open right now. Is the plan to eventually open up more products? Or are you hoping to move more in the direction of launching and licensing your own products?
G: As of New Years Day, we are launching a bottled product, which is the first ever ceremonial-grade bottled matcha. We have been working towards this for over two years now. To see this vision come together took patience, endless hours of hard work – and matcha — and most of all, faith…We will be launching to a distributor exclusively in the New York markets starting in January.
When you’re not busy with your business, how do you like to spend your free time?
G: Free time isn’t really a reality when you start a small business in your twenties. This is a family business, and every single member of our family is involved in some capacity. Our parents, Matthew and Terrie Fortgang, hustle on the daily, as do our younger siblings, Rex and Savanna. When they are in school they are either behind the bar, executing pop-up events with us, or working along side Max and I in the office.
Where do you go for the perfect meal in New York?
M: The perfect meal does not exist, but there are many establishments that come pretty close! I would say that one of our favorites is Barney Greengass, a classic New York eggs and lox establishment. We have been going as a family since we were born and we know the entire wait staff by first name. We are constantly inspired by their decade-long family hustle!
Do you have any MatchaBar neighbors that you’re particularly fond of?
M: In terms of customers, Chelsea runs the gamut. As of today we have set up employee discounts from some awesome companies and organizations that are near our cafés like Google, Red Bull, The Standard Hotel Group, Amazon, Vice, the Food Network, the New School and NYU. These customers and working professionals make up a large portion of our regular matcha drinkers. On the other side of the spectrum, MatchaBar has also ben able to appeal to many of the lifetime New Yorkers. Many of whom have lived on the block or in the area for 20+ years. There are the people that have given Chelsea its character for the last half-century and we are thrilled to be able to provide them with a welcome counterpoint to the mostly corporate cafes on 8th Avenue.
Finally, any last words of kids?
G: Simple. Good things come to those who hustle!
-by Darren Paltrowitz