How Caffe Lena Became The Oldest Coffee Shop In The US

Long before the top coffee trends of 2024 and over a decade before the original Starbucks initiated the rise of flavored lattes and affogato-style Frappuccinos, Caffe Lena had already served its first coffee and established itself as a trendsetter in its own right.

"The venue was opened in 1960 by a young couple from Boston," Sarah Craig, Executive Director at Caffe Lena, explained to Food Republic. The historic New York-based coffee shop is named for one-half of that couple, Lena Nargi Spencer. "She was reportedly the first person to introduce espresso to Saratoga Springs."

But it wasn't just the novelty of their coffee menu that drew people to Caffe Lena and kept them coming back again and again over the decades. While Lena managed the food and beverage side of the business, her husband, Bill Spencer, booked performances to entertain their guests. From the start, they were "looking to jump on the folk music coffeehouse trend that was so popular In Greenwich Village and other major cities at that time," notes Craig. But the magic created at Caffe Lena was no passing fad — in combining music and coffee, this place known for its creativity came to be known for its longevity — the longest continually running coffee shop in the country, birthplace of legendary folk artists.

Brewing coffee and making music history

About 200 miles from New York City — approximately a three-hour drive — the Spencers transformed Saratoga Springs into a cultural center where coffee was brewed and musical legends, like Anaïs Mitchell, were born.

Today, Lena's mark on Caffe Lena is visible in countless ways, from her signature coffee (a mocha) to the desserts on the menu – her special was the chocolate chip cookie, which remains just as it was when she used to bake the goods herself. But the impact of Lena and her husband extends far beyond the confines of the coffee shop, affecting the music we listen to across the country and around the world today — especially when it comes to the folk genre.

Speaking of Lena, Craig states, "She had a dramatic flair that made her stage introductions legendary, and she gave nicknames to her favorite musicians that stuck for their entire careers. She gave Bob Dylan his first weekend gig outside of Greenwich Village, and she helped Don McLean and Arlo Guthrie get their careers off the ground."

A lasting legacy and a commitment to community

The legacy of Caffe Lena has been officially recognized by several national institutions, including the Grammy Foundation, which honored the coffee shop's significant contribution to the development of American music, and the Library of Congress, which has archived a collection of over 500 audio recordings and other files, including photographs, videos, and print materials that document the historical events that took place there.

But Caffe Lena also lives on in the local community that frequents this special place on a regular basis. "Coming to Caffe Lena makes you feel like you're part of something," states Craig. "It's more than just seeing a great show. People get involved as members of our nonprofit, as volunteers, by bringing their songs to open mic or their poems to poetry night. There are activities for children and music classes, and hundreds of fabulous touring bands playing the stage every year."

The dynamic, collaborative environment that continues to thrive at Caffe Lena more than 60 years after it first opened is a testament to its namesake founder and the key to its continuation. "Lena described her management style like this: Don't do it like you're in it to make money; just do it with a whole lot of love, like you're in it to serve," explains Craig. "That is the model we have always followed."