When you approach the latest cafe in Newburgh, a message on the door sets the tone: “ALL ARE WELCOME.” Recently opened in November by Brandon Grimila and Fernando Cordova, Downstate seeks to bring people together with a blend of quality coffee and Mexico City-style food. “Cafes get really snooty for some reason, and we didn’t want that,” says Grimila.
Originally from northeast Pennsylvania, Grimila is a Culinary Institute of America graduate with over a decade of experience in the high-end food world. Cordova, a Jersey kid who migrated from Morelos, Mexico as a child, is a graduate of the International Culinary Center with similar experience. The two chefs crossed paths eight years ago while working at Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch in New York City. “We were station partners,” says Grimila. “We built a lot of history back then, just working together, maintaining our station, and learning our way through cooking.”
The two split ways when Grimila moved back to Pennsylvania in 2016. However, in 2021, they rejoined forces to run Promises Kept, a private catering company that provides wood-fire cooking for weddings and events from New Jersey to Maine. “After Covid, my interest in cooking and hospitality was quickly fading,” says Cordova. “Until Brandon gave me the opportunity to help out with Promises Kept, and ultimately offered me partnership in the company.” While Promises Kept began in PA, the Hudson Valley wedding scene saw Grimila and Cordova bring the business to the region. In early 2022, they began living together in Beacon and opened a space for Promises Kept in Esopus.
However, Promises Kept only operates during the warmer months, and the duo wanted to figure out what they could do in the winter. For Grimila, the idea of opening a cafe was an extension of a personal passion. “I’m that crazy person who grinds their coffee by hand every morning,” says Grimila. “I buy coffee from all over the world and make it the hard way every single day. That’s my thing. I’ll be late to a meeting before I have a cup of coffee.”
By the time the two started the branding process for Downstate, they also knew that they wanted to leave Beacon. “We figured, wherever we should be moving is where we should open up this cafe,” says Grimila. They considered Poughkeepsie and Kingston as options, but ultimately settled on Newburgh. Grimila explains, “We were trying to figure out: what does a city need, and which city needs it most? Kingston’s pretty much got it. All the players are there. It didn’t need us, but Newburgh does.”
With a desire to become part of the community, they sought a spot in a residential neighborhood rather than a commercial area. The two bypassed the more prominent Broadway and Liberty Streets to settle on Lander Street, where they found an available building. The building’s owner, Robert Fontaine, had originally planned to establish a cafe there. However, he agreed to allow Grimila and Cordova to set up their joint venture in the space instead, relinquishing his own plans for the spot. “Robert’s goal aligned with ours, which is trying to help pick up this block that has been really let go and been forgotten about,” says Grimila. The duo signed the lease this January and started renovations in August.
The interior of the space, designed by Newburgh’s Jon Beer Contracting, draws inspiration from Mexico. It features an abundance of plants, a robust concrete counter, and walls adorned with Grimila’s photos of VW Beetles taken during a trip to Mexico. While the interior pays homage to Mexico, the exterior honors Newburgh’s history. Designed by Philadelphia-based branding company True Hand Society, the heron in Downstate’s logo celebrates Newburgh’s waterfront, and the chains above the door symbolize the Hudson River Chains from the Revolutionary War.
As for the menu, expect all-day Mexican options like tamales and chilaquiles, breakfast items like tortas and gorditas, and lunch offerings such as tortas and burritos. The selection holds a special place in Cordova’s heart. “I had the opportunity to eat and drink in some of the best restaurants in the world when I worked in the city,” says Cordova. “But no matter how many fancy restaurants I ate at, I always found myself indulging in my mother’s pozole, tamales, and tortas at home. The menu for Downstate is simple, but it’s an iteration of the home comfort food that I grew up on as a kid and still love till this day.”
Additionally, the co-owners believed that Mexican food would be approachable as they sought to cater to Newburgh’s community—which they discovered from a recent census was 55 percent Latino. “It’s important for us to make sure that everyone feels included,” says Grimila. “Coffee can sometimes be a very gatekeeping, excluding substance, which is really weird. We didn’t want that.”
In fact, they hope that Downstate’s offering can bridge the gap between coffee enthusiasts and Mexican food lovers. “What we’ve seen as patrons and people who live here in Newburgh is that white people do not go to the Mexican places within the city,” says Grimila. “Downstate is about blending these two communities that don’t usually blend. We’re not saying we’re pioneers by any means. I’m sure that someone else has done this before somewhere else. But Newburgh’s never had anything like that.”
Beyond just serving as a melting pot, Grimila emphasizes Downstate’s prioritization of Newburgh. “Truth be told, I don’t care if no one comes here from Beacon, or Kingston, or New Paltz,” says Grimila. “It’s not why we opened. We opened for the people who live in Newburgh. Two people who work for us live on Lander Street, and another two live on South Street. I live three blocks away. We opened this for them and for us.”