When Sunny Cover opened the doors of Peekskill Coffee House in 2003, she didn’t have dreams of a wildly successful business.
“I just wanted to not lose my house,” she recalled of the process, which included taking out loans and applying for grants in order to open the doors of the coffee shop at 101 S. Division St.
“And then after that, I wanted a better paycheck,” she said with a laugh. “We made less than our employees for quite a while so that was quite interesting.”
Today the coffee shop serves as a hub for the city of Peekskill, with its eclectic interior regularly hosting live music shows and other events.
“It’s really just taken off,” Cover said.
The shop is also celebrating a significant milestone this year: its 15th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Cover held an anniversary party in June, one that closed down a section of Esther Street and featured games, live music, cake and champagne.
“It was so great hearing people tell their stories and remembering our first day or our first year,” Cover said.
Cover opened the coffee shop shortly after moving to Peekskill in 2001. Prior to living in Westchester, Cover spent most of her life in California.
“In San Francisco, there are coffee houses everywhere,” Cover said. “Part of the neighborhood, part of being in the community was having that place to go to in the morning. When I moved here, I was like, ‘How am I supposed to meet other parents?’ Do I go up to someone at a grocery store and be like, ‘I think we might get along? Maybe your kid, my kid, what do you say?’ It’s very awkward.”
That desire to create a meeting space led Cover to partner with James Lorr and Laura Gillen to open Peekskill Coffee House.
At that time in Peekskill, “Nothing was open here,” Cover recalled. “Pretty much everything was boarded up.”
Prior to its use as a coffee house, the historic corner building had served a variety of purposes, from a painter’s studio to a tire store to a dry cleaner.
“Everything really happened serendipitously,” Cover said. “We took up the carpet and pulled up the plywood. There were holes in the original floors, but they had been topped off with coffee cans. We felt like it was really meant to be.”
In 2009, Cover bought out her two partners, and soon after added menu items, including soup and paninis.
“Originally in the early 2000s, you could have a coffee house with coffee and nothing else,” she said. “But we started to realize people would sit here for the day and people were literally leaving all their stuff and going away to eat then coming back, or bringing their food back to the table. So we were like, ‘All right, we’re going to have to do something here.’”
In later years, the menu has expanded to include a variety of crepes, along with gluten-free and vegan options.
The coffee shop itself grew in 2013, when a neighboring antique shop closed its doors. “I snatched that up and expanded,” Cover said. “We just keep trying to make relevant changes to keep the business going.”
In the years since the coffee shop opened its doors, Peekskill has undergone something of a transformation, with a number of new businesses opening their doors in the city’s downtown, including her own husband’s business, Speakeasy Tattoo.
“We’ve had some great restaurants come into town, too,” Cover said, referencing both Louie Lanza, who opened a string of restaurants, including the nearby Hudson Room and The Eagle Saloon, and John Sharp, the restaurateur behind Birdsall House and Gleason’s.
“It’s a lot different when you have landlords and building owners who don’t live in the town,” Cover said. “Because when you have someone like me or John or Louie who have these properties, we’re here. Our businesses are here, our houses are here, our lives are here versus (a landlord who says), ‘Oh, I don’t need to rent that out, because it’s a tax deduction. It’s no big deal. It’s just a building over there.’”
For Cover and business owners like her in Peekskill, “Your whole livelihood is here,” she said. “You have a lot of pride for the way it looks and how it’s perceived.”
Cover said the greatest pride she takes in her business is seeing the community come together at the coffee shop.
“It was one thing in the very beginning,” she said. “People would come in and we didn’t even really know very many of them. But then we’d see people start to lean over and talk to each other.”
Over the years, Cover said she and her business have been a part of a number of milestones in the lives of their patrons. One couple used Peekskill coffee (sourced from Seattle) for their wedding favors, “because their first date was here and this is where they met and just totally fell in love,” she said. “We’ve seen babies born and then watched them turn into 15 year olds who want to work at the coffee house.”
Cover said future plans for Peekskill Coffee House could include roasting their own coffee or operating a mobile coffee truck.
“This coffee house definitely has a life of its own,” she said. “And it really does attract a lot of love.”
Despite having spent 15 years working to build Peekskill Coffee House into a spot affectionately referred to by locals as “Peekskill’s living room,” Cover stressed, “This whole thing is not about me. It’s everybody’s coffee house.”