Giles Russell : Mott St, Little Italy (Two Hands) : New York, New York
“There’s no reason in this day and age that you shouldn’t wake up every day and really, really want to do what you do; because you’ve only got ‘X’ amount of years on this Earth so you’d better be doing exactly what you want. I think there’s obviously a huge amount of risk in that and it’s easier said than done, but I think it’s important that everyone’s aiming to do that. Because if you’re happy doing what you do then the people around you are going to be inherently happier. It’s a flow on effect”.
Flanked by graffitied roller doors and a seemingly endless stream of delivery vans is a somewhat hidden gem making a lot of noise in Little Italy called Two Hands. Opening just under a year ago it’s still a relatively new face in the neighbourhood, but this modest space is instigating a cultural movement across Manhattan by changing the way a good coffee and food experience is perceived and valued; a long overdue shift in a country predominantly caffeinated by one of the inexplicable number of cookie-cutter coffee franchises.
On a quiet day it can be easy to miss amongst the endless stimuli Mott St offers from minute to minute. On a weekend just look for the large, dedicated crowd milling around the entrance and be prepared to wait for up to an hour and a half; whatever Two Hands is doing, it’s doing it right and the locals are loving it. You’re embraced by a minimalist, considered approach to design; a compact warehouse-vibe with a mind boggling number of funky staff endlessly moving coffee and food from one place to another. Artwork hangs from the walls (and ceiling) and is constantly changing with new installations and exhibitions from artists that the Two Hands team offer their space to. There’s endless coffee, happy chatter, great food, natural light…all combining nicely into a welcoming air of positivity.
And in the thick of happy New Yorkers enjoying the wonder of their new found Flat White, you are likely also hear the jarring Australian accent cut through the floating noise and chances are it’s one of the two young Aussie owners who have made the decision to stare down the toughest city in the world. And to date, the tough NYC audience seem more than happy to accept a smiling Aussie crotch-kick to the linear understanding of the U.S. cafe culture, and the impact across the island of Manhattan is an obvious and welcome one.
As part of the duo that started it all, Giles Russell is one of the polite revolutionaries calling the shots (…pun most certainly intended). He’s called NYC home for a few years now, but hails from one of the most beautiful suburbs in Australia – Bondi, near Sydney NSW. And although only 26, he’s still old enough to have enjoyed a taste of the Bondi of yesteryear, before it quickly morphed into the pocket of commercialised craziness that it is today. Back when it was a typical Australian laid-back seaside haunt with only a handful of options in which to grab a coffee or post-surf snack, he would walk in off the street and request a job at (the now legendary) Porch & Parlour while it was still in its fit-out stage. Working here from its beginning, he would gain invaluable insight witnessing a business grow from day one with all the challenges and rewards that came with it. However it wasn’t as much the coffee and food culture that captivated him, but the people and the sense of community it cultivated.
“…(Porch & Parlour) is this amazing hub of people; a community where everyone’s friends. You used to sit down at 8 in the morning and have coffee with a friend, then that friend would leave and then another friend would come in, then you would leave and another friend would replace you…it was revolving door of people and I was so attracted to that. And Sam the owner was there every day on the pans cooking, going mad ‘cause it was always really busy; but he knew everyone’s name and everyone knew him and felt this deep connection to a place. And there was something about that that really got me thinking”.
Off the back of the seemingly normal expectations of school, friends and family the plan was to complete the marketing degree and then get to work – the standard path that’s drilled into all of us from a young age. The idea of owning his own business – let alone run his own cafe – didn’t occur to Giles back then, and on completion of his degree he’d look immediately at making his move into the advertising game. The idea of moving to NYC, however, was always front of mind.
“Before I got my job in advertising I said to myself “If I don’t get this job, I’m going to go to New York”. But I (ended up) doing advertising 5 days a week and, as I got on, I disliked it more and more; just sitting at a desk writing emails. I wanted to be on my feet and doing things”.
The story seemed to write itself from there as he and his future wife – who also had plans to move to New York- left their Sydney lives behind and headed to the USA together. Giles was immediately comfortable in New York and his new home inspired the idea to open a cafe; a space that would offer great coffee, a healthy food alternative, and an environment for people to feel welcome in what can be an incredibly isolating city. With a broad vision now in place, Giles would see the edges begin to sharpen when he connected with Henry Roberts; a friend from home who’d spent a year crossing the US in a camper van before also falling in love with, and settling in, New York. And it was during this friendly chat over a beer at a pub in New York City that two Aussies discovered a previously undiscussed likemindedness: the idea of bringing their take on Australian cafe culture to New York City. This was the perfect storm of independent thinking, seeding an idea that would inevitably shape the next stage of their lives and change what countless New Yorkers understood a coffee and cafe experience to be.
“…I was like, “What do you want to do here?”, and (Henry) was like, “I want to do a cafe with amazing coffee and amazing bread”…and I said, “That’s exactly what I want to do; let’s do it together”. I was working in a restaurant down the road and Henry was working in a restaurant in SoHo and so we kept on kicking along, looking at spaces. Each thing we saw we learnt a little more about the game; the New York game. It was like a university for opening a venue”.
The journey from an exciting concept to a nuts and bolts reality is rarely a quick one and the countless hurdles inevitably faced when trying to open a F&B related business in New York City means it can take months – even years – to find the perfect location and get the appropriate permits and licences in place. This could potentially dampen even the most enthusiastic entrepreneurial spirit and creative vision of any business owner worth his or her salt.
“There’s so much you need to know about the real estate market, how to get a lease, all the ins and outs of landlords, the legal side of things, then just generally how New York is structured. Accounting, getting gas and electricity turned on, so many things that you have to spend time in the city to gather that information; you can’t just walk in an expect to know that. I got here and a friend of mine opened a restaurant in the lower east side; he pulled me aside and said, “You’ve just got to hold your horses. You’ve got to know “yes that’s what you want to do” but it’s going to take you longer than you think and you’ll be thankful that it does”. If we started it (Two Hands) three years ago we would have made so many mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes any way, but it would have been far worse; catastrophic mistakes where it would have just fallen apart”
But as it turns out, their mutual idea is a great one and – as the locals are clearly on board – has obviously been very well executed. And that’s led to the realisation of an integral part of his vision that started as a feeling so many years earlier in Bondi. And to that end, Giles is genuinely appreciative of the countless faces he sees every day; respecting that, despite the countless restaurant and cafe options New Yorkers have to choose from, so many head straight to Two Hands.
“At the end of the day it goes back to community. You get to create a community. You get to create a place where people come in and feel welcome and feel safe, happy, and feel like they can connect with people; and that’s awesome. Because what is life about if it not creating a community with people?“
The next stage is obvious and already under discussion; a second space. But they’re in a good place right now and there’s no real sense of urgency to get something up and moving. Ultimately, Giles’ vision hasn’t wavered so it comes down to the integrity of the business and those at the helm; and there’s no shortage of that when he talks about the next stage of Two Hands. They’ve recently tested the waters with a market-style cafe, and it reaffirmed a long held belief that in order for this business to flourish it needs to respect all the reasons it’s achieving so much success; the people.
“We’ve had a market stall up in the garment district for six weeks; it’s a great opportunity and been a really great learning experience, but it’s also a complete pain in the arse going to the garment district every day. Even though there’s a subway stop five minutes walk that gets you there in fifteen minutes, it’s just SO far away, so I think when we do that we’ll want it to be close. It’s important that you’re still there and still the heart and soul of the place”.
With considerations of the second cafe and other offers of huge sums of money linked to franchising opportunities, the decision is to hold fast and steady the ship. Giles wants to ensure that the experience they have worked so hard to create for their loyal customers is respected and remains consistent; that they can control the next stage to ensure it remains true to the Two Hands ideology. It’s a healthy view: understanding that there’s no specific end-point to what they’re creating at Two Hands, but that there’s also no hurry to compound its success. And that’s a strong (and refreshing) indication that it’s not simply about the money; it’s about authenticity. It’s about wanting to ensure that, whatever the next step is, it’s taken to ensure a great experience that respects the brand and initial vision; and – most importantly – continues to grow their Two Hands family.
Visit Two Hands as soon as you can:
(WARNING TO HIPSTERS: Keep your coffee order douche-free)
Background street art by: James Goldcrown (UK) : @jgoldcrown #bleedinghearts #nyc #lovewall