Coffee with David Steingard
Laughing Man Coffee at 184 Duane Street is a neighborhood hangout where I frequently meet with other Tribeca real estate execs to get an inside scoop and negotiate deals.
Founded in 2011 by Hugh Jackman and David Steingard, the company supports coffee farming communities by investing in programs that clear the way to health, growth and success for coffee farmers and their families. Recently, I sat down with David Steingard to sip double shot macchiatos and talk about all things Tribeca, entrepreneurship and coffee. — Daniel Hilpert
Daniel Hilpert: You were in law, and now you run Laughing Man. Tell me a little bit about your background and what made you embark in this direction.
David Steingard: I loved being a prosecutor at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, both the work and the friends I made. As someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, I get a little antsy, especially when I am in an environment that does not reward or foster ingenuity and initiative. I started to look for the next thing. I knew of the vacant space where the cafe is now and thought about getting back into coffee; my family had been in the business when I was growing up. It was around the time specialty coffee, micro-climates and attention to the farmers was starting to become more important. It was a great mix of hospitality and creativity that I was looking for. At the same time, Hugh had come back from an Ethiopian coffee project he was supporting and he wanted to get more involved. We pitched our idea, he loved it, and we partnered up. Like Paul Newman’s organizations, Hugh gives 100% of his profits to the Laughing Man Foundation and I donate 50% of mine. Our contributions support various projects, the latest being 100 new home and home improvement projects in Colombia for coffee farmers, and 45 college scholarships for children of coffee farmers.
What has it been like having Hugh as a partner? What is he like to work with?
He has a genuine love and care for Laughing Man and what it can do for others. He is extremely smart and well-read in world socio-economic issues, and is a self-proclaimed coffee snob but as down to earth as they come. Laughing Man is not a celebrity endorsement after-the-fact; he is fully engaged in its growth and brings a voice of compassion, authenticity and joy through which he can tell the story. His ability to give full attention to anyone or anything given the demands on him is inspiring.
What is Laughing Man’s mission? What is its role in the community?
Our mission is twofold. Locally, it’s to change the customer’s world through hospitality, what we call ALL BE HAPPY moments. Our motto, ALL BE HAPPY, comes from a sanskrit prayer “may all be happy, may all be free of disease, may all have wellbeing and none suffer the misery of any kind.” We take ALL BE HAPPY and ask how we can create a moment for someone where they feel connected and a little more inspired as they go through their day. Great hospitality can create a value reset, and for a moment a customer can remember the real things they cherish.
We know our regulars’ drinks before they order. We have a group of PS 234 parents who show up at 8:30am after dropping off their kids. One of them, Claudia Saez-Fromm, a five-year regular, gets a large plain black coffee, while a friend of hers gets a cortado. They stay and unwind before happily leaving for their SoulCycle and yoga classes. Local professionals, like Claudia, who’s also a broker at Corcoran, linger to set up meetings or build relationships. So locally, it’s a very simple principle, but hard to pull off for as long as we have and that speaks to our incredible staff. Globally, we want to be a company that leaves the world a little better than we found it. We want to nourish and support the very things that we draw from, the farmers and their farms. To us, coffee is a family business, in the cafe we treat staff and customers as family. The foundation is focused on projects that move the whole family and community forward.
You’re adjacent to Duane Park, how did you get these street seats approved by the City?
The street seats are part of a DOT administered program. Under their watch and authorization, we were allowed to provide a public seating area for the community. We paid to have it built and we maintain it. It has really brought the community together and fosters the kind of connection we think is valuable to a happy life.
What is Laughing Man’s next move?
We have had a location at Battery Park for about six years and it’s going great.
It has a beautiful view of the water. We’re soon expanding this space into a larger format cafe, offering the community the same great vibe and community feeling with a little more of a food offering, and additional space to sit and shelter from the heat and cold. Hopefully, we will open by Labor Day.