Don’t call coffee fuel around Giles Russell and Henry Roberts. These two Sydney boys are purists of the bean, aiming to bring Australia’s laid back coffee culture to the chaos of Lower Manhattan.
Convicts caught up with the caffeinated duo to get their word on American versus Australian coffee culture, laughing it up at work, and the spiritual charge of morning coffee.
How’s it going, gentlemen? To begin, tell us how you two met.
We’re both from Sydney, we went to similar schools and are the same age. Henry told me about moving to the States with another mate of his, so when I got to New York we had a few beers and I asked him what he was doing. He said he wanted to open a cafe with really good coffee and sourdough bread and I said ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to do, so why don’t we do it together?’
How did Two Hands go from idea to reality?
It was nearly two and a half years of loose conversations over beers. It actually was a conversation with like five people, asking, “Hey you want to get in on it? You want to get in on it?” After a while, actually not that long at all, we were like, ‘Look, we’re the only two that really wanna push and do this.’ It just took a little bit of extra time, and I’m so glad it did because we learned so much in that two year period of asking questions, going to different places, having different ideas that changed every day.
Sounds like a very organic process.
There was an organic element to the planning and organizing and creating what felt real to us. That creates the vibe, you know? That thing that you can’t really put your finger on.
We found cafes in the areas where we lived and they were just like computer labs. They were all really dark and everyone was really, really quiet in the cafe. We missed that buzz when you walk into a cafe and it’s just like “Oh hey mate, how are you going? Good to see you”, and everyone knows your name, everyone knows what coffee you order.
How did you replicate that feeling in Two Hands?
We encouraged the people that worked for us to be that way, because New York’s a lonely place. You don’t really know many people, so getting up in the morning and knowing you’re going to walk into a cafe where you know someone and that person’s smiling can change your day. Hopefully we do a little bit of that for everyone who walks in here.
Right on. Why do you think cafe culture is so different over here?
That’s a tough question. Obviously there’s the history and influence of the immigration back in Sydney and Melbourne, in particular, and why espresso based coffee picked up. I think coffee has been just fuel in America, people chugging big coffees to get through the morning, whereas ordering your Manhattan or old-fashioned a certain way, is a ritual thing. But that spiritual moment when you get your coffee is translating over here. I don’t know how to put my finger on exactly what that is and why it’s taken off but…
What do you think that subtle thing is?
Maybe Americans, but especially New Yorkers, they love having their ‘thing.’ It’s like: ‘this is my drink, at that bar, in this area, that’s mine, and that defines me.’ Coffee has been brought into that and that kind roots you in an area, kinda plants you. It’s very securing for a person to do that, and also from a New Yorker’s standpoint it’s also very boastful, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m a New Yorker like I drink my coffee here, from this place, they know my name, what of it?’ I think that’s really cool.
Talk a bit about New York.
New York has such a vibrant vibe to it that it’s addictive. That’s why I think so many Australians are here now. It does feel like home in certain ways, which is good.
When I got here New York seemed like a city where you see that uber, hyper-success everywhere. I always was like ‘Wow that person has been doing something for two or three years and it just exploded…how did they do that?’ And I really feel that it’s because everyone in this city helps each other. New York is the biggest city in the world and there’s success for everyone, so everyone’s helping each other up, pushing each other up that ladder.
What’s the best thing about working in the shop?
The people that we work with – not only the customers but the staff and everyone-we all have like a friendship, first and foremost. We run things as professionally as possible but at the end it it’s like going to school again or something and catching up with your mates. You’re working really hard but it’s for something that you love so you’re never looking at the clock, you’re never wanting to get out of here.
It’s a dream come true to do this, and to do this in New York, essentially the stage of the world for food. To be representing Australia in that sense. And like Henry says we’re so lucky to work with amazing people. I laugh more every day at this job than I ever have. I’ll be on the floor in fits of laughter. But yeah, it’s the best shop in the world.
Thanks gentlemen. Stay caffeinated.