Monmouth County's Hidden Gem: 1st Cup Coffee

Over the last several years, there has been a surge in the popularity of small, independently-owned coffee shops across the United States. People of all ages often bring their laptops to coffeehouses, connect to free Wi-Fi and work while enjoying a cup of coffee.

Within the last two years, longtime Monmouth county resident Bob Hespe has opened two “1st Cup” coffee shops in Atlantic Highlands and Middletown. 1st Cup has a similar image to other small coffee shops - a minimalistic, rustic, design with comfortable seating and free Wi-Fi.

But this isn’t Hespe’s first foray into the coffee business, he opened his first shop in Red Bank in 1993 on Monmouth Street. He saw the success of Starbucks on the West Coast and in New York City and decided to open his own coffee shop.

Instead of following the corporate model of Starbucks, though, Hespe has taken his own approach. “I’ve never worked for a corporation - I wouldn’t know how to,” Hespe said. “The only office I’ve ever worked is in the offices I’ve owned.”

Instead, he strives to create a local, community feeling in his coffee shops.

“I’m used to working as a very individual, local business,” Hespe said. As a local business owner, he enjoys interacting with regular customers. Many of 1st Cup’s customers are regulars who visit both locations frequently.

In his Atlantic Highlands shop, Hespe hosts an open-mic every other Saturday. This usually draws a diverse local crowd including singer-songwriters, rappers, and poets.

He also showcases local art for sale on the walls of his Middletown and Atlantic Highlands locations, which he cites as an important part of 1st Cup’s organic design and community feeling. Customers are charmed by 1st Cup’s atmosphere and often sit in both shops for hours at a time.

When it comes to the science behind the coffee itself, Hespe stresses the importance of simply having a great product. He uses a local roaster for his beans and then relies on his own taste tests and customer feedback to determine when his coffee is up to par. He says the quality of the product is the most important aspect of the business.

The secret formula for Hespe seems to be consciously providing a comfortable environment and a good quality product in an era of increased corporatization. “I just believe if you really focus on quality and human interaction, that takes care of the bottom line,” Hespe said. He prides himself on his “say-yes philosophy” which has allowed him to embrace new opportunities and make his small-town coffee shops staples in the Middletown and Atlantic Highlands communities.

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