They’re everywhere, stacked high behind counters in diners, on the cover of the Manhattan phone book and in the hands of the homeless.
Like yellow taxicabs, they represent New York City. And unlike so many cab drivers, these omnipresent city icons project an unfailingly polite image. “We are happy to serve you” is the phrase printed on the side of the blue paper cups.
Frank Padia, a 43-year-old business owner, has never stopped to acknowledge the cups’ message, their origin or even why he drinks coffee. As he stepped out of Tom’s Restaurant — the Upper West Side diner made famous on “Seinfeld” — he held a cup of extra-strong Greek coffee capped with a lid. “No, no, never thought about them,” he said. “I guess because they’ve been around so long and because you see them all over the place.”
“We are happy to serve you” is in Greek letters above three steaming cups of coffee and between two pillars. There’s also a Greek vase, and the blue and white colors that have made the cups instantly recognizable to New Yorkers since the Sherri Cup Company introduced the “Anthora” design more than three decades ago.
“The design has been around since 1963,” said Wayne Meadowcroft, Sherri’s vice president of sales and marketing. “At the time, most of the diners and delis were Greek-owned, so the design, which was by an employee, Leslie Buck, was a natural.”
While ownership of diners has expanded to include other ethnic groups, the cups are not unique to Greek-owned restaurants. At Italian pizza shops, in Indian diners and Jewish delis, the cup of choice is almost always the same and can be found stacked high in plastic covering near the coffee pots.
At Zahner’s Cash and Carry, a restaurant-supplies wholesale warehouse in Queens, the cups are boxed in cardboard, one step from joining millions of others in city diners. “We sell over 7,000 items here,” said Zahner’s manager, Elisa Deixler. “And those little cups are among our most popular items.”
Sherri has seven variations on the cups, including a brown-and-yellow design and an “I love NY” cup. The biggest seller is the Anthora, with over 15 million a month sold out of the company’s headquarters in Kensington, Conn. “I’m not certain I can explain the popularity,” Meadowcroft said. “It’s a metro-only cup, definitely. You won’t find it in California or anyplace else. But people know of them nationally.”
Coffee drinkers and homeless people looking for spare change are among the groups most familiar with the cups in New York. But one reason for the cups’ national appeal may be from their frequent appearances on New York-based television programs and movies in search of a touch of authenticity. “On ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘NYPD Blue,’ any show that wants to look authentic, the cups will be there,” Deixler said. “It’s authentic, ethnic New York.” That exposure has spread the cups’ already broad appeal. One woman from Los Angeles called for a single order,” Deixler said. “I said we didn’t do that. Then I asked her if she would pay $40 plus shipping for a single stack of the cups. She said she’d pay anything. Her husband was from the Bronx and she wanted to surprise him with something from home.”
The cups are also showing up on T-shirts created by the Bamboo clothing company and on the cover of the Manhattan phone directory, where the familiar blue-and-white cup is next to another staple of the New York culinary experience — a bagel. While Sherri cups may appear to be everywhere, they certainly are not alone. “No, not at all,” Meadowcroft said. “There are more competitors out there than I can count. I wish it were a monopoly.”
The Premier Paper Manufacturing Paper Company distributes cups with a Greek figure preparing to throw a discus. In between four pillars — two more than the Sherri Cup Company offers — is their slogan, “It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You.” The Imperial Paper Company also puts out a similar-looking cup.
The message on the cup used on the phone directory strays from the one on Sherri’s cups. “It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You” is the slogan, a slight departure from Sherri’s version.
And for all the cups’ visibility, the coffee drinkers still aren’t likely to notice what they hold in their hands. “I’ll drink coffee no matter what the cup looks like,” Padia said. “I just happen to drink out of one with the same design every day.”
— text by Jose Martinez
(used with permission from the Columbia News Service)