Many Australians in New York are pining for home and trying to recreate something of it in their daily lives. Hence the array of “Aussie cafes” popping up and stories covering the phenomenon everywhere from here to the New York Times. It’s no surprise that both expats and locals are drawn to these light, friendly spaces – they’re damn inviting.
Three years ago when Giles Russell and Henry Roberts (both from Sydney) arrived in the city and were living in Chinatown/Nolita, they yearned for something fresh and healthy they could get easily at most cafes back home. “There wasn’t a place you could get something quick like a salad or a sandwich, and then run back to your job,” says Russell. “It’s what you see in Australia everyday.”
So in June this year the duo opened their cafe, Two Hands, in an old hair salon on Mott Street on the cusp of Nolita and Chinatown in downtown Manhattan. It’s an area often associated with Australian culture, with neighbours such as Ruby’s, Eight Mile Creek, B-Space and Dinosaur Designs.
Before opening Two Hands, Russell and Roberts spent their time at various coffee shops around the city. They found most of them were dark and cavernous, everyone was heads down working on laptops and all they offered was coffee and pastries. Russell and Roberts wanted to create some atmosphere, so they painted the walls white, started preparing fresh sandwiches and salads and did away with wi-fi. “A lot of people get really cranky about it,” says Russell. “But that’s what happens when you flip the idea of a cafe on its head – especially in a place like New York where everyone is stuck in their ways a little bit.”
The minute you step inside Two Hands you’re transported to something that feels like a cafe on Bondi Beach (where Russell is from, having previously worked at Sydney venues Porch and Parlour, The Winery and Kawa Cafe). As well as the hum of Australian accents, the place is all whitewashed brick walls and plywood tables. The baristas behind the counter in a uniform of black T-shirts and backwards caps will know your name and coffee order after two visits.
“It’s funny that whole ‘Australian-esque’ essence of what Two Hands is now,” says Roberts. “ It was never a huge part of our plan, we just wanted to blend in. But I guess it happened naturally from our influences back home. And people really respond to that light, Aussie feel, so we kind of ran with it.”
And though New Yorkers might be sick of brunch, they’re not sick of avocado on toast. “Everyone is loosing their mind over it and we’re certainly not the first ones to do avocado toast in the city,” says Russell. “We sold 114 of them on Sunday.” They’ve also coined an in-house drink, the Outback Capp (a cappuccino with chocolate on top that comes with a Tim Tam).
Coffee is a good business to be in in New York, but the boys admit sometimes there’s no point trying to change how Americans drink their coffee. They don’t do their cappuccinos with chocolate and sometimes they have their lattes with half a litre of milk. “New Yorkers would riot if we closed at 4pm like we do in Australia,” adds Roberts, saying some of their biggest coffee rushes are at 5 or 6pm. At this stage they’re staying open until 7pm, serving coffee with pastries from Balthazar, fruit loaf from La Tropizienne and bread from Sullivan Street, with plans to expand into dinner service, hold art events and start a run club.
Russell and Roberts explain that when they opened Two Hands, one thing they wanted to establish was a community of regulars. “It might be an Australian thing, but if you can walk into a coffee shop and people are friendly and they know your name and order, it feels great.”
164 Mott Street, New York