After bouncing between New York’s coffee joints as freelancers, designers Luke Woodard and Ryan De Remer got their hands on a dodgy old bodega and rebuilt it from the ground up. Enter Sweatshop: part design studio, part ode to Melbourne’s coffee scene. Flat whites on the menu were obviously a given but it took the white hot Aussie actor, and Sweatshop regular, Margot Robbie to convince them to put a baked beans and cheddar jaffle on the menu. Naturally, they named it The Duchess in honor of her Wolf of Wall Street character.
We chat to the boys about jaffle making, risk-taking and the delicate art of applying the right amount of vegemite.
Hey boys. Tell us who you are and what you do.
I’m Luke and I’m one half of Sweatshop
And I’m Ryan, the other co-founder of Sweatshop.
Where are you from originally?
I’m also born and raised in Melbourne. I met Lukey while I was studying at Monash, just shy of four years ago. I’ve been here ever since.
We always worked together really well at uni and wanted to do something together. We just had no idea what it was going to be. I took off for New York the day after I graduated without any real plan and Lukey stayed in Melbourne for a while.
We went our separate ways for a bit, I did automotive design back home. One thing led to another and we both ended up here. We instantly bonded again and started throwing out ideas of what we could do together.
And how did the idea come about?
We were both working. Luke with an interior architecture firm, me with a graphic design agency. We were loving being here but really had that drive to do things for ourselves. Then we had this idea. We wanted more control from a design standpoint, rather than be a cog in the wheel. We were like, You know what? We live in New York, we’re young. We don’t have anything to lose. Let’s just take a stab at it.
Totally. And how did the concept of the café slash design studio come together?
The idea was to have a coffee shop, a creative space, as a public wing to the design studio. It’s a financial outlet but also great for just being able to get away from design work and just chill out, have a coffee and meet a client.
New York is a place where space is hard to come by. We had all these passion projects that we’d often just camp out in other cafes to work on. It made sense to have a coffee shop element. You really need to make the most of every square inch. It’s a no brainer.
All the retail stuff we try to design ourselves. The benefit of having a design studio is we can make anything; caps, socks, tees. It’s kind of rad.
The first run of our tees we set up an actual sweatshop in my garage and screen-printed a huge batch – a few mates and my brother. The most recent ones- Death Before Decaf- some rad guys around the corner in Greenpoint did those for us.
Yeah a couple of my snowboarding mates were on the Australian Olympic halfpipe team together and outgrew that. So they hit me up to help design snowboard and ski socks. In uni you come up with ideas and projects and execute them to a certain level. But you just make it and then that’s it. You don’t sell it. But here I can see the finished product, people buying it, seeing it in the world. It was a cool opportunity. I like that they originated there but are designed here. It’s a cool clash of both cultures. City meets mountain.
We never wanted to be overtly cliché about being Australian. It’s more about subtle things that you’d find in an actual café in Melbourne, like copies of Broadsheet and flat whites.
And what led you to Brooklyn over Manhattan?
Williamsburg specifically. One of the big thing was the neighbourhood vibe here. It’s more chill than the island is. Everyone says g’day to everyone. Everyone kinda knows each other.
Manhattan has kind of been flogged to death. We really wanted to bring a slice of Melbourne to Brooklyn and it hasn’t really been done here. There were a few Aussie places but let’s be honest, they were all pretty much run by Americans. They did Australian stuff that’s not really true to what we know back home. We wanted somewhere we could really stretch out and also just have a cool crew of young, creative people we could relate to. Williamsburg ticks all those boxes.
We get a lot of weekend Aussies, then we have our locals.
It’s fun having non-Australians come. People who know nothing about Australian coffee culture and come in and are like, ‘What’s a flat white?’ ‘What’s a jaffle?’
‘Is a jar-fle, like a war-fle?’
‘I’ll have a yar-fflers to go.’ That’s kind of the fun part, you can just chat to people and be like, ‘Yo, this is how we do coffee and this is why we are so passionate about it.’
We both had a stab at the whole finish university, get a job thing and we learnt a lot. But then we were in this other city and this new environment and there was all this possibility. The main thing was me being 25, still young enough to mess it up and pick myself up again.
We both had that attitude. We had nothing really to lose. We didn’t have a family or a mortgage or a house. If everything failed completely we could go back to our jobs from before.
Any major bumps along the road?
The only time we were in panic mode was construction. It wasn’t just cut a check and get a set of keys. It was shady contractors, blokes who would go back on their word. A lot of the time we just built stuff ourselves. Just get in there and get our hands dirty.
We also didn’t have that safety net of being in Australia; family, friends or parents to recommend contractors or good guys. We were just thrown into the deep end. Like, ‘Oh, we need a plumber. We don’t know any plumbers. Pick up the hammer.’
If we didn’t have those moments where we had to just rapidly learn and dive in, I don’t think we’d be as passionate about it. Half of the enjoyment of creating a space and a business is just that feeling of: wow, we created this with our hands. We spent two weeks on hands and knees scraping old glue off the floor. It used to be some sketchy-as old bodega.
And we’re designers, so everything has to be perfect. Every little hole in the ceiling filled in.
But it’s so rewarding, knowing we build this space, rather than signed a few checks.
Do you think what you did is harder to do in New York city?
There’s a lot of red tape. We’re still waiting for a permit for a bike rack out the front.On the other side of the coin, I feel like what we’re doing, it wouldn’t work anywhere other than New York. Our concept of combining these two things together, wouldn’t really have resonated as much in Melbourne. It wouldn’t have the same following or appreciation. It was like New York. New City. New Rules. Regardless of where it was, there’s always challenges, but ultimately I think New York was always going to be the place to do it.
Would you say the city itself inspired you?
We took inspiration from Melbourne cafes. The environment, the design, the décor, the feeling.
And then just the idea of taking a risk, doing something. There’s so many people here doing cool inspirational stuff it was more like, ‘Hey, let’s do it. Let’s take a risk, quit our jobs and make something happen.’
And how are Americans taking Vegemite?
Anyone in Australia knows that there’s a right about of Vegemite and there’s a wrong amount of vegemite. Explaining that to American staff, they just slop it on. It’s like No. NO.
That’s what we get asked, like ‘What the hell is this Vegemite stuff?’ They wanna know. It’s so cliché Australian. They want to try it.
A lot of Americans go for it
Yeah they GO for it. We’re like, ‘Here are the jaffles’, and they say ‘We’re here for the vegemite.’
Or sometimes you’re trying to explain it to them like, ‘Yeah, it’s yeast extract.’ You get them to smell it. It can be a hard sell.
What’s the best part about being your own boss?
The great part about running your own thing is you can let your own creative process go wild. The hard part is you don’t really have anyone cracking the whip to keep you on top of projects.
So now that’s me, cracking the whip on him.
And vice versa.
It’s only because we each had a particular set of skills that we could make this happen. I think that’s the beauty of partnerships.
Just to have a mate with a set of incredible skills that I just suck at. It’s exciting to know that together you can achieve a bunch more stuff that you could have yourself.