The Polo Bar, owned by Ralph Lauren, is a club-like, well-reviewed restaurant featuring Ralph’s personal “Madeline” memory from his childhood in the Bronx, the Reuben sandwich, corned beef on rye with melted Swiss cheese and coleslaw, along with a menu full of comfort food, in what is called the “best lit” room in New York. The restaurant is frequented by celebrities and A-list socialites, those New Yorkers who know one another and slip in and out of places many of us will never visit. The Polo Bar is difficult to get into, guarded on the outside by well-dressed attendants armed with iPads displaying a list of those well connected enough to have a reservation that evening.
But 17 blocks north, anyone can have a delicious cup of coffee at Ralph’s coffee house smack in the middle of the “Mansion,” the Ralph Lauren edifice that houses women’s clothing, accessories and home furnishings on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. A big green cup of coffee with the Ralph’s logo is now affixed to the sidewalk of the 72nd Street entrance. Opened in 2010, the Mansion is a beautiful four-story post-modern, classical building that sits across the street from the men’s flagship store – the 1898 built, National Register of Historic Places, Rhinelander Mansion Lauren refurbished and opened in 1986 to showcase his brand.
Ralph’s Coffee was seen for a while in the Polo store on Fifth Avenue, which opened in 2014 and closed due to disappointing sales and some corporate restructuring less than three years later in early 2017. That store was the home for Ralph Lauren’s less expensive Polo brand and included a coffee bar and communal table. Ralph’s Coffee with its bright green logo, green and white tiled floors and color scheme, also shows up in Ralph’s Coffee shops Hong Kong, Tokyo, the Flatiron District and at Rockefeller Center in a 1943 green Citroen truck. The patio area, adjacent to the truck, where you can enjoy Ralph’s cold brew, espresso, cappuccino or lemonade, along with muffins and chocolate chip cookies, is outfitted with chairs and umbrellas, a respite in the middle of midtown Manhattan.
Ralph’s Coffee made a promotional appearance offering hot chocolate in Bloomingdale’s last Christmas in the men’s Polo Shop with direct street access to 59th street. At the time, the men’s shopping area included an ice-skating rink complete with rental skates and the aforesaid hot chocolate, in case you needed a break or a boost while purchasing polo shirts, corduroys and cashmere sweaters. All retail theater and staging that is crucial to the Ralph Lauren brand.
Ralph Lauren, with sales of nearly $6.2 billion in its last fiscal year is the most well-defined brand of apparel and accessories domestically and globally. It has been articulated consistently with the vision of its founder, Ralph Lauren, for over 50 years. Ralph Lauren’s unique view of Americana style, the World of Ralph Lauren — worn jeans, cowboy boots and work shirts , influences of the British aristocracy and 1930s film, handsome men in tuxedos or white dinner jackets, women in slinky, back revealing dresses, accompanied by vintage cars or planes – whether on safari in old Africa, on a country estate or in the grand American West, is a picture of life as it should be lived, if we didn’t have a care in the world. Now, a leisurely cup of “bold and delicious” coffee is part of that picture.
Ralph’s Coffee appeared in the Mansion ahead of Christmas, 2018 in conjunction with Ralph Lauren’s 50th Anniversary. The Spring 2019 Runway show was held in the coffee shop where buyers, clients and the fashion press, sipped Ralph’s coffee and nibbled on breakfast of croissants, muffins and the like, while models descended the circular staircase in a cascade of Ralph Lauren black dresses with gold accents, gold dresses with black accents, white sailor pants and military style jackets and a smattering of black based printed silk dresses. The collection was “see now, buy now” available at the Mansion and selected Ralph Lauren stores and other retailers for immediate purchase.
The Ultimate Coffee Shop
The first floor of the Mansion, which used to house fine jewelry, watches, antique jewelry, pocket books and accessories was reconfigured and redecorated for the 50th Anniversary with banquets and bistro tables, green and white curtains and white lacquered trim. Now it has been permanently transformed into a coffee shop occupying about a third of the first floor.
It is a pleasant place to be. When I visited recently with a colleague, we spent well over an hour sipping the coffee. It is strong, and very good; the organic beans are from Central America, South America and Africa and processed in Philadelphia by an artisanal producer, La Columbe. It can be purchased by the 12-ounce bag of whole beans for $17. The croissant and scones were good; the service pleasant. The New York Times is placed on a center marble communal table for those who want to read. The customers were some tourists, some local. Ralph’s Coffee opens at 8:00 AM, well ahead of the 10:00 store opening, to cater to local residents before work. When I visited on the weekend, it was filled with attractive people who seemed to have nowhere else to go and were happy to lounge in the beauty of the surroundings, some with shopping bags, others just sipping their coffee.
The menu is limited to mostly breakfast items, muffins, scones, croissants, yogurt parfait, and sweets, a delicious, rich looking chocolate cake that can be had by the slice – or, the whole cake by special order. There are also Ralph’s brownies and chocolate chip cookies. Prices are reasonable, by New York standards. You can buy Ralph’s Coffee mugs, which are displayed side by side with the bags of coffee for $20 each. Rumor has it that Ralph wants to expand the coffee shop menu to include burgers.
The question is, is this good business, good for the Ralph Lauren brand, or not? I can’t testify to the productivity of the use of the space. Does a $25,800 Ralph Lauren watch, an $18,000 pave diamond Ralph Lauren bracelet or a $2750 Ralph Lauren handbag yield more sales per-square-foot in the same space? Or, does it serve the brand just as well to offer the more egalitarian $4 cup of coffee? I say the coffee wins, hands down. It offers a satisfying, engaging experience and something new – always a good strategy in retail. It’s also an opportunity for those who shop or not to become a part of the franchise. It offers fun, and, as in all things Ralph, its presentation and experience are consistent with the World of Ralph Lauren. It complements and expands the brand. It is authentically Ralph. It has “legs,” meaning it is an opportunity for Ralph Lauren to test and enter other product categories and distribution channels if he so chooses. I would not call this a retail milestone, stores have been offering refreshments for centuries, but it is a good twist on an old take. A twist that enhances and accrues to an already successful brand.