Kaleena Teoh

A coffee community they can be proud of, one filled with representation and justice.

Kaleena Teoh co-runs a space with her partner, Chi-Sum Ngai, that mirrors her stylistically and intellectually. 

From the outside in, Coffee Project NY’s Education Lab, based in Long Island City, seems like a venture capital-assisted startup with sharp attention to detail, all the in-vogue equipment a coffee nerd could want in a barista space, and a sensory lab that is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association, specialty coffee’s governing body. On the inside, however, is a culture with clear attention to people and a heart for creating access for those who may not have it.  


The story behind the Kaleena and Sum of Coffee Project NY is a story of two people that worked incredibly hard to make this place happen.

In 2015 they opened what they lovingly called a “shoe box” in the East Village to just see if they could make it work. It was literally a project, thus the name.  They both worked long days and hard hours to keep this location running. Within just a few years they’ve found success in their retail endeavors spreading to Queens, East Village, Brooklyn and Chelsea and have been able to invest heavily in a space centered around education for members of the specialty coffee community.

The Education Lab overlooks the retail space like a quiet intellectual in the corner. To have this techy, SCA-certified lab means Kaleena and Sum have completed a laundry list of mandated tasks that are up to par with the SCA’s protocol. This includes things like spacial, environmental, water treatment, and equipment requirements as well as specific guidelines concerning noise prevention, room temperature ranges and adequate space for each student in class. The Who’s Who of espresso machine brands have loaned machines in the Education Lab so as prospective business owners come in during their business research phase, they can interact with the best machines on the market and pick which ones match their budget, business plan, and overall vibe. Some of the machine’s interface with a phone; others have old-school, tried-and-true technology buried in Ferrari-looking bodies and some are a sneaky mix of technology and work-horse aesthetic. 


The main coffee bar features a Ferrari-like, custom espresso machine that serves business-owners working out of the building as an amenity.

The building houses the likes of VaynerX, from the internet marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuk, whose employees come in regularly for quality drinks. On this same bar Kaleena and Sum have curated the most aesthetically pleasing and functional brewing devices and situated them under perfectly dimmed lights. Guests can bask in the beauty of the cafe’s thoughtful design from any seat in the space, each is as cozy as the next.  

Across from the sensory lab is another glassed-in room where the roasting happens. It’s packed with both shiny, new roasting technology as well as old tech, like a specific brand of drum roaster, that often doesn’t get the credit it’s due. They seem to have found the right balance between state-of-the-art and classically reliable technology to make delicious coffee. The array of roasting equipment is thanks to Sum, who heads up the roasting at Coffee Project NY. Stainless production equipment lines the perimeter around the main roaster, and tucked in the back is commercial shelving filled with green, unroasted coffee that will eventually turn into a cup with a clear wow factor. It’s clear they’ve put the same level of detail towards coffee sourcing as they have their spaces. They aim at sourcing from a range of producers––those who are little-known as well as highbrow producers––and search for varieties that produce cups of coffee that are designed to make your palate sing.


Fine coffees are sometimes similar to fine wines in that they’re difficult to access.

With small producers comes a small amount of land and thus, a small amount of coffee production. If a producer has a reputation for exquisite coffee, their production can be allocated before it’s even picked. Creating a network to get access to coffees like this takes time and persistence. In the specialty coffee industry, it can often be accomplished by competing as a barista or a coffee roaster on the national and international stages. If someone puts in the incredible amount of effort to win a coffee-related competition on the national level, producers and/or importers are incentivized to get great coffee into the hands of those competitors. Sum has competed enough and has been highlighted by enough industry publications to support her work in developing that network. As a direct result of her work, customers of Coffee Project NY have the pleasure of enjoying rare and delicious coffees whenever they’d like.

Now with six locations running in various boroughs they are thriving.  Kaleena talks with wide smiles as she recounts the days of the shoe box and “hoping things would work out.” She and Sum cheerfully recount quitting their jobs and putting their energy into this endeavor. They talk passionately about building a business together and making it sustainable for their work community.  Quality presentation and aesthetics are also key points of Coffee Project New York’s story. Mise en place is the status quo, and the cleanliness of the bar is indicative of the same effort and attention put into every drink. Each coffee presented by Kaleena has some story attached to it about processing, rarity, and agricultural or roasting experimentation. The word “project” is baked into each part of the business. The rhythmic process of finding and displaying rare, delicious coffees is a tough enterprise in itself. 


As Malaysian-born entrepreneurs, they understand that Inclusivity in the hiring process is key and they’re proud to be able to provide opportunities to people who might otherwise lack access to specialty coffee professions.

This work doesn’t just end with hiring but also flows into active representation of employees and their backgrounds on a larger stage. Kaleena joyfully describes the energy it took to source a coffee for a specific barista who wanted to compete in a barista competition with coffee from their home country.  It wasn’t just simply purchasing a coffee from an offering list of an importer, it was a long, steep journey to source the best coffee they could find from that country and putting both the coffee and the employee on the national stage.  It was work, it was representation, it was justice through the multifaceted lens of employment, coffee sourcing, education and competition.

Now she also wears the hats of responsibility and success as she tells stories about running a successful business with Sum as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, what it’s like to fight to make being a coffee professional a fruitful career and how they’re laying a sustainable groundwork for their employees who mostly belong to one minority group or another. Simply stated, they envision a coffee community they can be proud of, one filled with representation and justice. Their desire is to improve the quality of life for everyone they come into contact with in the coffee supply chain, beginning with the folks they hire.

This work is hard. It’s incredibly laborious to make a coffee shop work, let alone making it work with New York City commercial rent knocking at the door each month. Pressing on in the face of injustice with the blunt instrument of capitalism being the only constant is difficult. However, at the end of the day, Kaleena and Sum are here for the hard work, the quality coffee, and the people they interact with on a daily basis.

Story and photography by Adam Shaw of Civilian Visual Media (CVM).

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