Ashley Jaffe, an owner of Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen in Manhattan, started getting confusing messages from friends and customers in 2021. Every few weeks, a new one would arrive, congratulating her on opening another location of her cafe.
“I was like, ‘We didn’t, what are you talking about?’” Ms. Jaffe recalled. She and her husband, Zach Israel, had opened Blank Slate’s first cafe, on the corner of East 30th Street and Madison Avenue, in 2015 and a second cafe, in Midtown, in 2019. But they had not opened any since — and certainly not as many as they were being credited with.
She quickly discovered the source of the mix-up: Blank Street, the venture capital-backed coffee chain that began its rapid expansion across New York City in 2020.
In the summer of 2022, a Blank Street opened one block west of her cafe, at 31st Street and Fifth Avenue, with a black-and-white awning and sea foam green accents that could reasonably be mistaken for Blank Slate’s. Another popped up three blocks east.
Confusion ensued. Customers at Ms. Jaffe’s shop tried to cash in rewards in the Blank Street app, she said, while others emailed her catering requests for Blank Street’s mint green coffee trucks. It felt like owning a cafe called “Starbooks,” Ms. Jaffe said, “when everybody knows Starbucks.”
The saga, which ballooned into a legal exchange between the two businesses, reached a grudging détente this month, when Ms. Jaffe and Mr. Israel renamed the shop Slate Cafe.
The change was necessary to differentiate her business from the competition, Ms. Jaffe said. But she was also wary of the accidental association with what has become one of the city’s most saturated — and to some, most loathed — brands.
Blank Street, which was founded by Issam Freiha and Vinay Menda in 2020, operates about 40 locations across New York City and attracted millions of dollars in venture capital funding with its promise of efficient, affordable coffee.
Ms. Jaffe said she worried that the chain’s notoriety could cost her business. She said a coffee supplier had told her that it would not do business with Blank Street. She overheard people complaining about Blank Street on the sidewalk outside her cafe.
“I’m like, ‘That’s not us!’” she said.
In October 2021, Blank Slate’s lawyers sent Blank Street a cease-and-desist letter arguing that the company had infringed upon her cafe’s “intellectual property.” Lawyers for Blank Street responded three months later, denying that the company had committed any such infringement, seeming to even challenge the notion that Blank Slate had “any intellectual property” to protect.
“With over 3,000 coffee shops in New York, any similarity with our brand is a complete coincidence,” Blank Street said in a statement on Tuesday. The company pointed out that Ms. Jaffe and Mr. Israel had not opposed Blank Street’s trademark, which was registered in September 2021. Blank Street declined to answer specific questions, including whether it was aware of a shop called Blank Slate when the company opened its two locations in that area.
Blank Street’s expansion has poked a sore spot in the ongoing competition between the city’s small coffee businesses and its caffeine giants. In the 1990s, the Goliath in question was Starbucks, which some New Yorkers moaned had taken over every corner in the city.
Now, it is Blank Street. And other coffee shops with similar names are eager to distance themselves: The owners of Blank Coffee, a vegan cafe in London, said the businesses’ similar names might make customers think their cafe had “sold out.” In March, Blank Coffee formally opposed the registration of the Blank Street Coffee trademark in Britain.
Ms. Jaffe said her lawyers advised her that continuing legal action against Blank Street could be costly. So she hired the branding agency Saint Urbain to suggest cosmetic changes that would differentiate the two cafes — including a new name.
At the newly renamed Slate Cafe on Monday, the lunchtime crowd settled in for lattes and reacted to the changes around them: The cafe’s logo is now in cursive. The sea foam green accents in the cafe’s interior are gradually being replaced by darker green ones. (According to Ms. Jaffe, the purchase of new awnings, signage, uniforms and menus cost over $100,000.)
Jacob Baskes, 25, who works in an office nearby, said he thought the name change made sense, especially given that a glut of similar-sounding cafes had become a running joke in the area. In addition to Blank Street and Blank Slate, there is also a Bourke Street Bakery.
Although he appreciated Blank Street’s efficiency, he said he saw it as fundamentally different from Slate Cafe. “The whole venture-capital-coffee world is kind of the opposite to me of the smaller, family-owned business.”
Rachel Engel, 31, who works in sales and lives in Manhattan, has been a regular at Slate Cafe since 2017. Has she ever tried Blank Street? “No,” she said, about as quickly as possible.
Ms. Engel theorized that the resistance to Blank Street among New Yorkers was more about community space than coffee. She said she had noticed Manhattan’s coffee outposts getting smaller, with locations that serve food — or have bathrooms, for that matter — harder to find.
“It really represents this evolution of the New York coffee shop,” she said. “It’s not really to meet anymore or to spend time. It’s to get you your drink, in and out, which to me also signifies a depersonalization.”
As Lillie Sokolski, the director of operations at Slate Cafe, wiped down the long communal tables between customers, she said that most customers had barely noticed the changes.
When people had commented, it had been in response to a new message in the footer of emails from Slate Cafe employees. In bold lettering, it asks readers to note the cafe’s new name: “Our slate is no longer blank.”