New-York Historical Society

“Meet Me at the Double R Coffee House”

Postcard advertisement showing a cartoon by Herb Roth originally appearing in The World. MS 541, Mildred & Philip Sawyer Papers

Coffee’s big in the “city that never sleeps”. And it’s not a new thing either: a great little snapshot of this love affair has popped up in the form of a menu and an advertisement for the Double R Coffee House.

Menu for the Double R Coffee House, circa 1921-1923. MS 541, Mildred & Philip Sawyer Papers

Sure, you’ve never heard of it but the venture’s partners were none other than Theodore Roosevelt’s sons — Theodore, Jr., Archie and Kermit (Quentin was killed in WWI) — and their cousin Philip . They hung their shingle at 108 West 44th Street in November 1919 as the “Brazilian Coffee House”, the original name of a business owned by their manager, A.M. Salazar; however, he had sold that establishment to a Mr. Laredo who subsequently claimed ownership of the name. By early 1921, the partners had resolved that dispute with a new moniker, “Double R”, for “Roosevelt” and “Robinson” (the surname of yet another cousin, Monroe  Douglas Robinson). They also moved a couple doors down to 112 West 44th, while opening a second location at 726 Lexington Avenue. Expansion continued in 1923 when another house sprung up at 106 West 45th Street.

Possibly the most intriguing part of the story is the partners’ motivation for this leap into the coffee business, and like many significant events it had to do with booze — or, more specifically, the lack thereof. Prohibition had passed in January 1919 and the Roosevelts aimed to fill the massive gap in New York’s (legal!) social life left in the wake of the amendment by replicating the social atmosphere of South American coffee houses. According to the New York Sun, it was believed that at the outset of the venture, there was “every prospect that within a year or so Americans may be transformed into a nation of happy and contented coffee drinkers.” The partners’ choice of  the Theater District, previously a popular locale for saloons, was a strategic move to assist this transformation.

Theodore Roosevelt, circa 1905, with his sons, (from left) Quentin, Archie, Kermit and Theodore, Jr. before their entrepreneurial adventure. PR 065, Stereograph File

Although he passed away before the venture got up and running, former president and patriarch Theodore Sr. looms large over all of this. His grueling 1913 exploration of Brazil’s Rio du Duvida, or River of Doubt (now Rio Roosevelt), proved to be an influential experience for his son Kermit, whose participation acquainted him with the coffee-mecca that is South America and was later referenced as the genesis of the New York venture. It probably doesn’t hurt that Theodore is reputed to have been quite a coffee drinker; according to the Theodore Roosevelt Association he gulped down upwards of a gallon a day!

In any event, the multiple locations suggests the business thrived but the Roosevelts ultimately ceased 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, what happened to the establishment after that is unclear. A tentative guess is that it fell victim to the New York’s spiraling fortunes after the 1929 stock market crash. Either way, caffeine addled New Yorkers can still salute the Roosevelt clan for their role in making coffee a drink of choice in the Big Apple!

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