A New Kind of Cafe Built by “Three Broke Kids”COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Crown Heights, these Partners Coffee alums are building a business where community always comes first. Published: June 29, 2021
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Last weekend, my husband and I moved into the top floor of a very beautiful — and very old — brownstone. Like, built-in-the-1800s old. The kitchen faucet is broken; the bathroom tiles are cracked and the grout is moldy; the inside of every cabinet is coated in a sticky, brownish-yellow residue, the origins of which I try not to think about for the sake of my mental health. In short, there’s a lot of work to do. Right after we moved in, I was complaining about our months-long to-do list to a friend, and he said, “But you get to make it yours. It’s a giant blank canvas.” With that, a seed of gratitude bloomed in my chest, uprooting the tight knot of anxiety gripping me moments before. Yes, everything is broken — but we’re going to fix it. And when we do, we’ll be building something, too.
Reconstruction is on my mind, evidently. My interview this week was personally inspiring, for it gave proof that embracing chaos and bending — gracefully, thoughtfully, curiously — to conditions beyond your control can yield something pretty damn beautiful. I spoke with Sarah Elizabeth Huggins, co-founder of Daughter, a new cafe in Crown Heights that’s designed entirely around listening and giving back to the local community. When the pandemic rendered an original business plan untenable, Huggins and her partners, Adam Keita and Brian Stoothoff, took a beat to rest and reflect; then they went back to the drawing board. What happened next is a months-long story of resilience, innovation, and collective action. And the best part? It’s still being written. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you meet Adam and Brian, and what inspired the three of you to go into business together?
Adam, Brian, and I met working at Partners Coffee, and we bonded over a shared interest in seeking more sustainable options in the coffee industry and workers' rights. We talked about how we thought employees should be treated in the service industry generally, and what employing people with dignity would look like; this was before there was any sort of seed in my mind for Daughter. But Adam had been planning to open a shop for a really long time, and so shortly after we both left Partners, he reached out to myself and Brian and asked us if we would be interested in going into business with him and opening something that centered on those values that we shared. Originally, the concept was much larger. This was pre-pandemic, in 2019. Our plan was to open a farm-to-table restaurant with a large urban mushroom farm … Adam has spent a lot of time in Berlin and Amsterdam, where he talked to a lot of owners about circular economics, so we wanted to open an urban farm that put those things into practice here in New York. We were in the running for all these crazy grants, and we had made it through a couple of rounds for pretty large ones, and then the pandemic hit and all that money had to be diverted to the medical field, of course.
What did you do next?
We put everything [for the business] on pause. I was still working at Variety Coffee and Adam was at Leo, a pizza and wine bar in Williamsburg. Brian got on unemployment, which was great. We went into survival mode for a few months.
How and when did you return to your burgeoning business?
When the protests started, we did a lot of protesting together. In July, we realized that although the large-scale farm that we planned was probably not a possibility, we still had a lot of resources, and our goals for building community and serving others were actually more necessary in light of everything that was happening. We went back to square one and used those resources to establish something smaller, but still community-focused. We sat down and talked about our goals for opening a space and centering our business model on giving back. The name Daughter, which originated when we were working on that farm-to-table concept, was originally about everything that we served being a byproduct of the Earth. But as things took shape, Daughter became about everything in our space being a byproduct of our community's wants and needs. We agreed that once we started making a profit, we’d donate 10% a month to local organizations. We're now in the process of launching Project Family Meal, [where] we’ll make meals to donate to local churches and organizations for people experiencing food insecurities. We're hiring a team for that right now so that we can launch it within the next month.
Your current menu is focused on a few key breakfast items; do you plan to expand it?
We have six staple items right now, and we are planning on adding a new item each week. We’re also in the process of getting a beer and wine license ... We were always supposed to be a cafe and wine bar, but the wine bar part takes a lot more time right now because of all the red tape with the government. And the process to get a beer and wine license used to be 90 days; now, it’s like six months. So in the meantime, we just launched the coffee. When we finally get that beer and wine license, we'll have expanded the kitchen program to dinner service. But the food menu will always be pretty foundational, home-cooked things because we believe in doing a few things very right, rather than trying to overextend and doing a lot of things okay. And we're a really small space.
Are you planning to uphold the original zero-waste dining concept?
We're working towards that, now that things are loosening up ... The biggest problem with the zero-waste plan was that the pandemic completely obliterated that concept. Reusable things were just no longer an option, which was a tough pill to swallow in the opening. We had to source paper products as well, which was never part of the plan, but we're trying to find steps of cutting back every month. And we're now in the process of applying for grants again to be able to build that small urban farm and supply our own produce.
Considering Daughter’s emphasis on community, how did you choose Crown Heights to plant your roots?
None of us live in Crown Heights, but we all live close, in the bordering neighborhoods. When we were originally scouting locations, we were looking for an area that had a local community … In this city, the most economically sound thing you can do as a business is cater towards tourism, because there's a lot of it. But we didn't want to do that. I lived in Bushwick and worked in Williamsburg for a long time, and from my experience, both of those neighborhoods are populated by a lot of quick turnaround transplants: people who are coming to New York for jobs or because they are young and want to experience the city. And there is a lot of consumption rather than efforts to build community and to invest in neighbors and local establishments. So when looking for spaces, we were looking in Bed-Stuy, which is where I live, and Crown Heights, because we have always known and admired the community for maintaining its original character. A lot of people who live in the community have grown up there and are raising their kids there. We were also looking in Harlem, which is where Adam is from, but ultimately, Harlem got knocked out of the race because none of us live close enough. We wanted a space that we weren't just clocking in and clocking out of and then taking the money back to our different borough and spending it there and investing in communities there. We wanted a space where we’re near on our off days, where we can be on call for our community members.
How did you find the space?
The space really found us. We were just biking by it, and Adam got into a conversation with Sharon, who owns the bar next door. She's owned the bar for a long time. She grew up in the neighborhood. Her dad still lives right above the bar.
What's the bar called?
It doesn't have a name out front, but it's awesome. It's like an old timers’ lotto ticket bar. It's where the oldies who've lived in Crown Heights for forever go to hang out, and they go for her ... They always sit on the front porch with her. It's really special. But yeah, we were biking by and she was like, “Everyone's looking for this space to be taken over by something that's for the community,” rather than what it had been previously, which was a juice bar that charged 20 bucks per acai bowl. So we started looking into the space and spending more time in Crown Heights and felt called to it. And it's been the best. The day we signed the lease, we were standing in the space just looking around, and this guy, Daryl, who's lived in Crown Heights for like 46 years and still lives in the same house he grew up in, came in and told us he was a documentary filmmaker and asked if he could videotape us. He just started grilling us. And then he turned off the camera and was like, “I like you guys. Want to come to my birthday party?” It was great.
You did a number of pop-ups before the official opening day. What were you trying to achieve with them?
So in October, we launched a Kickstarter because we don't have any startup capital. During that process, we set up shop every Saturday in front of our space. All through October, we did a free coffee cart and just talked to people about what they wanted to see in this space. The entire venture was a massive leap of faith that the community would choose us and invest in us so that we could then invest in them. And it was really beautiful because we hit our Kickstarter goal simply by having a community that believed in us. And then we closed back down to do construction in November and December. We ran into some economic problems, which was something that we kind of expected because we were doing this in a pandemic. And so with the strain on our budget in January, we couldn't open yet: we didn't have the right equipment. But we needed to open in order to pay for this space. And we didn't want to be the people who had hung out and got to know everyone and then just disappeared for a long time. So in January, we started running a coffee cart out the door of the space. We knew we were going to be freezing, but we were willing to freeze because we wanted to really earn it. But that turned into a really beautiful experience because it's a lot to ask the community to just walk up to an unmarked door and talk to us. But they showed up. We had regulars before our opening day, people I would see every day and have really meaningful, productive conversations about what everybody wanted from this space and how everyone was feeling. It was a great time to just check in with people during the pandemic and scrape together enough to finally get open. It was a game of doing whatever it takes to bring this together in a really weird time.
All three of you are first-time business owners; what were your biggest learning curves in this process and how did you tackle them?
Definitely money was the biggest hurdle. We had no understanding of what it takes financially to open a business. We're three broke service industry kids who've just hustled since we were really young. And I'm still really young: I'm only 24. I'm like a child. And also, time — all of us are still working our other jobs as well.
Wait … you have another job right now?!
Yes. Adam's the first person we've been able to phase into just being at Daughter every day, which was really necessary. And also something we wanted to do, because this was originally his vision. I work at a coffee and florist shop called Homecoming in Greenpoint.
Yeah. Brian and I both work full-time jobs. I never sleep. It's a lot to juggle. The necessity of having business partners has become more than evident. I mean, none of us knew how plumbing and electricity work. We learned really quickly as we tried to get things set up and then ran into problems. Ultimately, all those things come down to having humility and asking for advice. And Brooklyn's a really special place in that the sense of competition that I've seen in other cities among business owners is just non-existent here. The community of business owners who've been willing to sit down and have a drink with us and tell us their mistakes or point out our mistakes before we walk into them has been really awesome. It’s what has gotten us where we are today.
Inside Daughter / Photography by Dominik Tarabanski / Interiors and architecture by Christopher Al-Jumah
The layout of the space is quite distinctive. Can you speak to the design philosophy?
So full credit to the architect we worked with, Christopher Al-Jumah. He's a friend of ours. When we started working with him, we told him that we wanted a space that reflected the community as much as possible. And he came back with this idea of putting a stoop inside because stoop culture is big in Crown Heights. I mean, it's big in a lot of parts of Brooklyn. These are real community building moments, walking by people's stoops and waving at them and sitting with friends on your stoop. Initially, we were incredibly hesitant to the idea, but Chris came back with this hybrid idea where there was a small stoop on our back wall and then some mixed seating. And then the next meeting, the stoop had gotten larger, and it kept getting progressively larger each meeting until finally we were like, All right, we like the stoop. I’m so glad that he stuck to his guns on that because it's awesome. It's been really cool watching people inhabit it in different ways and make themselves comfortable in different ways. But everybody kind of instinctively knows what to do. It's definitely taken on a life of its own.
I don't know yet. We're figuring it out. Definitely launching the beer and wine and creating a model for the family meals that works and doesn't get pushed to the side. Beyond that, we have a lot of goals. That urban farm is still a dream and still something that I think could be so beneficial to the community. And all of us think it could fit right into our concept very beautifully and be used as a resource for giving back as well. So I think that's probably what's next, but ultimately what's next is a lot of listening and responding to what's wanted of us. We're very malleable.
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