A Community Built with Two Hands and a Labor of Love

Flat whites and avocado toast have undeniably become a staple in today's coffee shop culture, especially in New York City. For that, we can thank the rise of Australian cafes in Manhattan and Brooklyn that have perfected Instagram-worthy #avotoast for #brekkie with a side of #latteart over the last couple of years. But beyond the toasts, friendly Aussie accents, and frothy white hearts, what sets one Australian cafe apart from another? We explored this as we sat down with Giles Russell and Henry Roberts, owners of Two Hands – one of the most popular cafes in New York. Initially a cozy cafe in Nolita (that was recently renovated and will be revamping its menu), Two Hands has since expanded its presence by opening a more spacious but equally airy companion restaurant in Tribeca. As we learned about what their hopes were before laying down any brick and mortar, and what they're proud of creating today, it's clear that Giles and Henry aren't on a mission to just fuel New Yorkers with caffeine and smashed avocado, Australian-style. They want to provide something that's simple and universal: to give everyone who walks through their doors a feeling of belonging, in a community that's backed by really good coffee, really good food, and really good relationships. After having seen and experienced the Two Hands culture firsthand, we think Giles and Henry have done exactly that.

 
 Two Hands owners Giles Russell (left) and Henry Roberts (right) sit by the window of Two Hands Restaurant and Bar in Tribeca, Manhattan.

Two Hands owners Giles Russell (left) and Henry Roberts (right) sit by the window of Two Hands Restaurant and Bar in Tribeca, Manhattan.

 

You both grew up in Sydney, Australia.  How did you end up opening Two Hands together in New York City?

H:  Five years ago, I was working at a music media agency in Sydney, but I quickly realized that the office world wasn't for me.  I quit my job and started working at a friend's catering company where I did everything from cooking to dishwashing, and that's when I fell in love with cooking, hospitality, and the idea of running my own business.  Nine months later, I moved to New York and got a job in SoHo, at Cafe Select.  I started off as a host, then became a server, and eventually a bartender.  While I was working there, Giles – who I'd known back in Sydney – also moved to New York.  We started to discuss the idea of opening a cafe, which we initially imagined as a hole-in-the-wall, but then the idea grew.  It took two years of planning, but it was really good to take that time to mull everything over and make sure that this was what we wanted to do, that we were ready to take this risk, and that we were going to make a career out of bringing Two Hands to life.

 Henry makes a flat white behind the coffee bar.

Henry makes a flat white behind the coffee bar.

 Giles stands at the bar, where they craft cocktails using fresh and seasonal ingredients.

Giles stands at the bar, where they craft cocktails using fresh and seasonal ingredients.

G:  I started working in hospitality during college to pay the bills.  I really loved the lifestyle – I loved meeting new people, and I loved working in the same places as my friends.  I studied marketing and finance, so I spent my graduate year working at an advertising agency, but I also spent the weekends working at a local cafe.  I found myself so much happier working at the cafe on Saturday and Sunday than I was at the agency Monday through Friday.  I learned a lot there, but I also learned I wasn’t built for sitting at a desk all day.  So I decided to move to New York, with my heart set on doing something in hospitality.  At the time, opening a restaurant or cafe in Australia was seriously risky and not very common, and the opportunity seemed better here.  When I got here, I caught up with Henry and found out that he wanted to open a cafe – and I realized he was the perfect person to do that with.  We spent a lot of time learning about the New York market and discussing how we could uniquely add to it.  We realized what was missing was a community-driven cafe, where customers could feel like they're part of a family with the owners, servers, and baristas, where it’s more than somewhere you stop by for a quick coffee and bite.  We really wanted to elevate the experience of hospitality in a cafe.  Hopefully we’ve achieved that with Two Hands.

What's the story behind the name "Two Hands"?

H:  We festered over names for so long.  We tried so many different combinations of our names, our pets’ names, our mums’ middle names... but nothing really stuck.

G:  One afternoon, Henry called me and was like, "I think I've got the name.  'Two Hands.'"  I immediately thought, that's amazing.  At first, it made sense because we thought of what any Australian would think when they heard that – Heath Ledger's first film that took place in Sydney, where Henry and I grew up.  It seemed like a nice but subtle homage to home, to our culture, and to one of our idols.  

H:  And before he passed, he was living in Brooklyn, where he started a restaurant called Five Leaves that was a huge inspiration to us.  That was our favorite cafe. 

G:  They created an atmosphere that resonated with us whenever we went there.  And as we worked to build our own community, our name started to take on so much more meaning.  "Two Hands" now really represents something handmade by Henry and I.  We literally built the original cafe on Mott Street, and a lot of this location as well.  In the beginning, we also took turns working as barista and the cook.  So we created the whole experience with our hands.  When you make something with your own two hands, you inherently care about it so much more, and a lot of love goes into it. 

 Two Hands now operates both a cafe in Nolita and a restaurant in Tribeca,  but coffee remains a focal point in both spaces.

Two Hands now operates both a cafe in Nolita and a restaurant in Tribeca,  but coffee remains a focal point in both spaces.

How has Australian coffee culture influenced what Two Hands has become?

H:  In Australia, coffee is something people look forward to enjoying with others, over conversation.  In America, people tend to see it as something to chug as a caffeine boost in the morning, on the run.  So we wanted to build a cafe where people would feel comfortable and relaxed to get together.  Australians also pride themselves on the quality of coffee that they drink – sort of like in the wine world, where people like to enjoy a nice glass of wine together, and appreciate its taste, smell, and quality.  Having really good coffee was the core basis of our cafe – that was where our skills and talents were.  It wasn't in the kitchen.  So we decided to go for a really simple coffee menu with Nicaraguan coffee that we sourced from a friend early on in the process.  We only offer whole milk and almond milk, but it's really good quality, and non-homogenized.   We've expanded to having this restaurant too now, but coffee will always be a huge part of our business plan.  So yeah, we've definitely been influenced by Australian coffee culture but we also want to be respectful of the city we've built this in, so our cafe has definitely taken on its own style.  

Creating a sense of community has been so important to you from the start.  How did you achieve that? 

G:  The idea of building a community was very, very strong from Day 1.  Australians go to a cafe every morning as part of their daily ritual.  You wake up, go and get coffee from your local cafe, and the barista knows your name and what coffee you want.  That was always really important to us as owners, that everyone who walked in would know our names and we’d know their names, and it wouldn't just be a transactional connection where it'd be like, "Okay, that'll be $3, see you later."  We wanted to cultivate more than that – we wanted coffee to bring people together.  So we've sat down every single person who's come to work for us and explained that this is more than just a coffee shop, this is a community. We want everyone who walks in here to feel like they’re at home, and we want our staff to not only learn their names, but whether they have kids, where they’re going on holiday, what neighborhood they live in, so that the next time they come in, it's not transactional, but more like, "Hey!  How was your weekend in the Hamptons?  How was that movie you saw on Thursday?"  Because that’s how the world turns – it’s built on relationships with people.  That’s why people live – it’s to make friends and hang out with other people. 

 The whitewashed brick walls are a signature look in both locations.

The whitewashed brick walls are a signature look in both locations.

What did you have in mind when you designed the space and tabletops in both locations?

G:  We drew on what we enjoyed about places back home.  Restaurants in Sydney are very naturally open, bright, and sunny, so they feel easygoing.  Most cafes are on a beach or a corner – they’re a bright focal point, not hidden away.  As we were planning Two Hands, we noticed so many cafes here are dark and somber, with really depressing music playing in the background and everyone staring at their laptops.  So many people here work in cubicles with barely any sunshine, or live in really tiny apartments that face brick walls or don't even have windows in their bedrooms.  To expect them to retreat to a place that's just as dark made no sense.  We wanted to transport them out of that darkness into a space that was totally different – with big open windows, a ton of sunshine and fresh air. 

H:  The whitewashed brick wall was something everyone loved at Mott Street, so we brought it over to our Tribeca location too.  Having plenty of light was how we'd differentiate from all the other cafes in the city – so we made sure it was really bright, with our white concrete tabletops and lots of plants.  And the blue tones just came naturally.  The artwork on our walls are beachy and sea-blue, our floors are blue, our plates are "duck egg blue", and our coffee cups are bright blue.   

G:  We just want people to feel like they can get away from the New York grind here.  And then support that atmosphere with really good coffee, really good food, and hopefully a really good relationship with the people who work here.  That's all we really want to do.  

The restaurant location features an all-day menu, conceptualized and designed by Melbourne-born Executive Chef Frankie Cox.

How would you describe the kind of cuisine you serve?

H:  It’s clean, nutritious eating that's very produce-driven.  Even when we include a protein, it's more like a 70/30 split in terms of meat-to-vegetable ratio.   

G:  It's unadulterated.  We do as little to the produce as possible, and we source our ingredients as locally and organically as we can.  Food should taste good because it’s full of nutrients, and the nutrients are where you should find the flavor.  That’s an Australian way of cooking.  Produce in Australia is so good because our land is so good, and there's tons of sun and water.  So Australian meals tend to be super simple – a few different vegetables with a side of meat and a really light dressing.  Nothing at Two Hands is rich or drenched in sauces or marinades.  We try to create nutritious food that people can feel good eating.

H:  Our executive chef, Frankie Cox, also designed the whole menu so that everything is made in-house.  We make our own vinaigrettes, hummus, and we break down our salmon and whole chickens by hand – it's all a labor of love.  It takes a lot of time and a lot more prep, but we think it's unique, especially for a breakfast and lunch menu.  To get an elevated breakfast and lunch beyond your typical sandwich, salads, and eggs – we think that's something unique we bring to the table as well.

 The beet-cured salmon bowl comes with a bed of courgetti, avocado, pickled shallots, watercress, capers, soft boiled egg, and a fennel yogurt spread.

The beet-cured salmon bowl comes with a bed of courgetti, avocado, pickled shallots, watercress, capers, soft boiled egg, and a fennel yogurt spread.

 Giles' go-to breakfast (read his "Dining Quirk" below) is the pickled chili scrambled eggs, which comes on sourdough topped with watercress and avocado.

Giles' go-to breakfast (read his "Dining Quirk" below) is the pickled chili scrambled eggs, which comes on sourdough topped with watercress and avocado.

 Two Hands' take on smashed avocado toast comes with pickled shallots, cilantro, pepitas, sesame, chili and lime on sourdough bread.

Two Hands' take on smashed avocado toast comes with pickled shallots, cilantro, pepitas, sesame, chili and lime on sourdough bread.

 The gluten-free banana bread is a must-order, topped with espresso mascarpone, toasted buckwheat and a drizzle of honey.

The gluten-free banana bread is a must-order, topped with espresso mascarpone, toasted buckwheat and a drizzle of honey.

Do you have a favorite dish on the menu?

G:  
Definitely the chili scrambled eggs at breakfast.

H:  The roast chicken with herb tahini for dinner.

Any tips you'd like to share to culivate our readers?

G:  I have two.  Always try and eat with others.  Food is meant to be celebrated and to bring people together, so I would encourage everyone to always sit down with someone else and connect with them while eating – even if it’s in an office conference room, or in a cafeteria.  That’s really where the joy of food comes from.  The other one is to be conscious of the food you put into your body.  Food isn’t just there to fill your body with a substance – it needs to actually energize your body and improve your life inside and out.  It's meant to make you feel good now, and long-term too.  

H:  Try not to be a fussy eater.  Be adventurous and have an open mind about food, and try to explore all the flavors that go into a dish.  Or at least just have an interest in what you're eating.  If you experience a new texture or flavor on your plate, don't be afraid to ask your waiter what that is.  You'll walk away not only satisfied on the inside, but also elevated with some knowledge – like "Oh, now I know how they brined that chicken for 8 hours to make it extra juicy and flavorful."  That’s a cool thing to know.  It's easy to take food for granted a lot when you're always around it, but it's important to take the time to appreciate food for what it is when you can.

 
 Two Hands Restaurant & Bar also offers a produce-driven dinner menu of seasonally-inspired dishes, such as  goat cheese squash blossoms ,  salmon with roasted carrots , and the  burger with beet relish .

Two Hands Restaurant & Bar also offers a produce-driven dinner menu of seasonally-inspired dishes, such as goat cheese squash blossoms, salmon with roasted carrots, and the burger with beet relish.

 

So, do you feel like you guys have "made it" yet in New York? 

H:  No, that hasn't happened yet!  Maybe if I start stressing out about certain things, that means I've made it.  I don't think that'll happen until I retire.

G:  I think the idea of "making it" means you’ve achieved everything you’ve wanted to achieve, and hopefully that never, ever happens for me.  The hospitality industry is constantly changing and evolving, and I think that’s an amazing thing to be a part of.  I wouldn't say we've "made it", but feeling proud of what we've created has definitely happened over a period of time.  And that comes from the people who come here.  We have a gentleman who comes here every morning and sits at Table 1.  We’re very close friends with him now.  When people like him say, “Thank you for creating this space for us," that means so much because that's exactly why we did this.  We didn't do it to make a dime, we didn't do it to be crazy about making cool coffees every day.  We did it to meet and hang out with awesome people.  That feeling – like wow, this is all worth it, this is why we do what we do – that happens day after day, every time we have a conversation with someone who comes in and says before leaving, "I love this place.  You guys created something awesome."  It’s incredibly flattering.

 
 

Kitchen Snapshot  Henry Roberts


Go-to homemade meal for guests:  a rack of lamb or a steak with a chimichurri sauce, and a pea mash.

Culinary quirk:  I drink a different coffee every day.  I didn’t used to do that.  But now that coming to work means getting to choose from so many different coffees, it's hard for me to stick with just one.  Plus, it’s free!

I can’t live without:  my super cheap, little non-stick pan at home.  I use it all the time and I couldn't live without it.

I never use:  the kettle.  I just don’t boil water.  And I never use the microwave, ever.
 

 
 Giles holding his newborn son, Elijah.

Giles holding his newborn son, Elijah.

 

Kitchen Snapshot Giles Russell


Go-to homemade meal for guests:  I cook pretty much exclusively from an Ottolenghi cookbook, like Plenty, or Plenty More.  So I do mostly vegetables, and I always return to their chili broccoli – it’s super easy.  It’s blanched and then seared on a grill with a chili-garlic olive oil sauce drenched over it.  It's simple and it has a good bite to it.

Culinary quirk:  You know that Jack Nicholson film, As Good as it Gets, where he goes to the same cafe and sits at the same table and eats the same thing every day?  Once upon a time, I told Henry, I want to be that guy who wears black every day and goes to the same cafe, sits in the same seat, and gets the same coffee and breakfast every day.  And that’s exactly what I do now.  From Monday to Friday, I wear only black.  I used to be into fashion but then it became a headache for me to figure out what to wear every day.  Anyway, every morning, Monday through Friday, I come in here, wearing all black and sit down at the same table – and without asking, my barista will pass me an Americano and one of my cooks will send over my chili scrambled eggs.

I can’t live without:  using a demitasse spoon to stir my Americano.  If I don't get a spoon, I have to ask for it.  I’ll never drink my Americano without stirring it first.  I don’t know why.  It’s just a habit.  A demitasse spoon is something I could never live without.  Weird.

I never use:  most things in my kitchen.  I have a $600 Vitamix blender in my apartment that someone gave us as a gift and I only use the jug to water my plants.  Probably not acceptable.
 

 

Visit Two Hands Restaurant & Bar at 251 Church Street in Tribeca from 8am-11pm, and Two Hands Cafe at 164 Mott Street in Nolita from 8am-6pm, both open seven days a week.

 

 

Photography by Anne Z. Chen