“This is my New York!” Clare Spikerman of Propeller Coffee on Manhattan Ave
On May 3rd, Greenpoint gained a new destination for coffee with some special bells & whistles – most notably, the thoughtful outlook and welcoming sense of humor of its owner. Clare Spikerman opened Propeller Coffee (984 Manhattan Ave) this spring after years of experience in food service and coffee brewing all over the world – from Canada to the UK to Australia to right here in New York.
Her commitment to offering high-quality caffeination is evident in everything from her hilarious chalkboard messages outside the cafe, to her remembrance of regulars’ drink orders, to the various comfortable seating nooks she arranged and furnished around the shop. Propeller Coffee serves Toby’s Estate roasts and Ceci Cela pastries – and is a place where you’ll feel welcomed.
Imagine starting your morning in a bright, light-filled space, sharing knowing laughs with your neighbors as an expert barista serves you a coffee beverage strong enough to kick you right back out the door and face the day. That’s Propeller – and that’s what Clare hopes you’ll experience in the space she designed with neighborhood regulars in mind. I’m a neighbor in the truest sense, with an address on the same block, so I sat down with Clare to find out what inspired her to open the cafe.
A native of Vancouver, Clare lived in Toronto for six years in her late teens and early twenties before getting the itch to use her dual British citizenship to move to London at 24. Her British mom, Lynda, was a globetrotting flight attendant in the 1960s (yes, it has something to do with the cafe’s name!), so travel ran in the family.
Of the decision to leave Canada, Clare remembers, “My friends said, ‘Just go; do it’ – there wasn’t anything there for me in Toronto. So I moved to London, and I got a job at a cheese shop with an Australian co-worker who had a friend that opened a cafe, and I did everything I could to get a job there, too.” She became an assistant manager, growing into a barista, and learning about the specialty food & drink world along the way in both jobs. “I spent a lot of time bagging beans at the cheese shop; we also had a giant refrigerated room full of cheese, and I learned more than I ever expected. I learned so much about food in London.”
With a love for food and coffee blooming, Clare took some time to travel to Australia for a month and tour around, deciding to come along when some Australian friends made New York the next stop on their itinerary. Having been “obsessed with New York” in high school but “so disappointed” that she never ran into Woody Allen on her first visit [imagine the perfect deadpan voice delivering that statement], Clare had a revelation upon subletting an apartment in Greenpoint on Lorimer & Nassau: “This is my New York! It was so magical – I finally got it, and found the neighborhood that was for me.” She lived out the days of her sublet before striking out for some more soul-seeking travel to San Francisco and back to London, ultimately deciding, “I have to make New York happen.”
Clare realized she could put her experience with coffee to use as the force behind her permanent move to New York City. With the encouragement and insight of family friends and her parents, Propeller Coffee came to life as an idea. Clare says, “I always knew Propeller would be travel-themed; my mom went through rigorous training as a flight attendant, and I wanted to make my space an homage to the unsung heroes of the sky like her. That’s how the 60s thing came into play.”
By that, she means the height of the glamour of her mom’s industry, and the eclectic period furniture she amassed for the cafe from various Salvation Army buying trips. The Hour, a BBC show, was also a big inspiration for the decor. Clare hired Kurt Schwarzbauer of Brooklyn-based S2 Studio to help translate the rest of her ideas, and commends him for his patient and instrumental role in partnering with her over the course of a year to find and build the space of her dreams. “Kurt would ask, ‘So what do you want the bar to look like? – and my answer would be, ‘Uhh…wood?’ – so he’d say, ‘What kind?’ – and I’d be like, ‘Red?’ He really helped focus the vision I had for what Propeller could be.”
Readers may recognize and remember the former occupants of Propeller’s space – the legendary Beata Delicatessen, owned by the Kalita family, and honored in the restored blue vintage signage above Propeller. Clare shared that Mieszko and Beata Kalita are still in the picture, as her landlords. They’ve retired and moved to Florida to be close to their daughter, and they happily gave their blessing to her new venture in the space, telling her, “We think you’ll do well; we hope you do well.”
She takes their hope in her seriously, and looks forward to meeting more and more Greenpointers as Propeller grows and evolves into a part of the community it inhabits. With “lots of regulars” already, Clare concludes our conversation with the reflection that she can honestly say she loves her job.
“It’s stressful and I’m exhausted, but you have to have a reason to get out of bed. I have that! I enjoy setting people up for their day; giving them their start for their whole day. And I can’t be here all the time, but I try to make sure that all my staff is on that wavelength, too. I love knowing that my staff and my customers will help set the tone and grow the place with me. It’s the people who are there everyday who make it what it is.”
Actively present on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Clare is excited to gather feedback and listen to Greenpoint’s wants and needs in a cafe. Stop in, meet her, power up with coffee, and become a part of the Propeller story.
BONUS: CLARE SPIKERMAN’S IDEAL DAY IN GREENPOINT
“I’d start out with a coffee here at Propeller – mostly just ‘coz it’s free. I’d head to Alameda for brunch, which is starting there soon – I’m hoping for a brunch burger! Then I’d wander over to Ovenly and Transmitter Park, take in some nature…I like to say that Manhattan is the backdrop for Brooklyn. Next, some lady-shopping at Alter and In God We Trust – then to Photoplay and Record Grouch to flip through some movies and vinyl. I’d take myself to Habitat after that for happy hour, and wind down the day with dinner at The Bounty.”