Williamsburg’s Urban Rustic is more than meets the eye. One of the passionate owners (and downright famous people, a member of the pioneering queercore band Pansy Division out of California ) Luis Illades gave The Queer Interior team a look at his charming, and yes rustic, café. At our first sit down, post one of the many snow storms last month, Luis described the space’s aesthetics lovingly as a “toothless hillbilly,” and he’s spot on. The renegade spirit of what he and his co-partners describe as their crucial partnership with local purveyors is part of what sets his hand-built market/café apart from the shiny new additions to this corner of Brooklyn.
He makes up a team of musicians and filmmakers turned co-owners who are each passionate (not snobby) about local food and their footprint on our city. Getting past the hype and to the veggies is an obvious part of this business’ larger mission. We chatted with Luis about upstate wood (wink), brand building, and spring water and we really dug hanging out with a doer not a talker about what matters to him. #easyontheeyes #goteam
Q.I.: The name Urban Rustic aptly describes your cafe. Elaborate on how the spaces name is reflected in its design elements.
Luis Illades: One of my partners, Aaron Woolf, had been living up in the Adirondacks and had become really interested in the idea of bringing an element of the small markets, farmer’s markets and lodges/pie stands down to Brooklyn where he had spent a lot of time and opened another restaurant Lodge, with our partner Daniel Cipriani. A lot of the design and look of the place is based around the milled wood from his land up north. The artwork on our walls is definitely not worth much or particularly of note other than to us it says, “this is our cozy little home/hangout and we’d like you to come in and spend some time.” We try to keep the lighting dim and comforting and the wallpaper was shaded to bring in an element of well-worn space.
The back of our shop is a place where you feel like you can relax and stay for awhile, read a book or catch up with a friend, even though the front screams hustle and bustle of people running around a metropolitan city yet wanting to take with them a well thought out, nourishing meal with house baked bread, house roasted meats, and naturally sourced ingredients.
Q.I: The wood was sourced from a farm in upstate New York.Tell us more about the day up there salvaging these unwanted trees.
L.I.: Aaron was finishing building his house and had some older trees that had to be cleared for their own good. A lot of people who live in wooded areas will definitely mill the wood they are clearing and make use of it in building an extra shed or add something on to their house or workspace. Since we were working on this idea of opening a shop in Brooklyn, it seemed only a natural fit. Our partner Dan, has an extensive background in building sets for advertising and film and his mind is constantly buzzing with ideas, breaking apart walls and rebuilding and refurbishing surfaces in his mind while you just walked in and noticed the ceiling.
The week that we were up there was really fun, we cut, stacked, milled, sawed and drove the wood back down on a flatbed truck. The house up there was still half finished, so we were bathing outdoors under a tree and eating foods from the local farmer stands, it really was fun and as peaceful as you could hope for. I was really into whatever book I was reading at the time and was in the cabin deep in it, all of a sudden I heard some strange musical noise outside and peeked out to hear Dan and Aaron half into a case of beer singing in the woods with an acoustic guitar. A good weekend start to the shop if you ask me!
Q.I.: Urban Rustic is more than a cafe. You’ve got tons of personal touches like your own granola, your own chocolate, even your own water! Tell us why branching in this way is important to you and your brand.
L.I.: Part of it may be branding and working to make our name recognizable and associated with products we love making and stand behind. When we envisioned this business we wanted to make it a point to make as much as possible in house. We bake the breads everyday; we source the cuts of meats and roast them in house. You should be able to taste the underlying flavors of the herbs rubbed into the meats and see the colors in the roasts, rather than think about how Boar’s Head (for example) sure are genius at making their assembly line products look almost real. We like baking granolas and cookies and weird maple bars and talking about them. It’s who we are. Although we developed into a very fast paced, high volume epicenter, we still prepare everything with real thought and concern as if it were for one person.
The water came into play while trying to find a more reputable and local source of bottling. Everything I was seeing in shops around here had a “Nestle” in small print on the label and as much as I’m not above eating a Nestle Crunch bar from time to time, I was always shocked at their water rights usage issues. Beyond making a statement about that, it’s like anything else in the shop, trying to go for local sourcing as much as possible and find small business people that we like dealing with. This guy Mark bottles from a spring upstate and drives them down weekly himself in his truck. I know his name and his life and we talk about his kids when he makes deliveries. That to me is exactly the type of providers we were setting out to work with. A dude in a truck named Mark, ya know?
Q.I.: In what ways is owning cafe the same as being in a band? Are there similarities? Did that background of dealing with personalities, making compromises and working together impact your role as owner at the cafe? Wait, was that like 5 questions?
L.I.: Dan and I both played in bands and Aaron has worked as documentary filmmaker for years. We all definitely came to this with a DIY aesthetic and work ethic. We’re mostly the type of people who find it easier to do things ourselves rather than ask others to do things for us, much to our detriment sometimes. I think that we also like to talk about what we do and how we do things on our terms in our language. This idea of farm to table, local sourcing, and cottage food industry has been taken over by buzzwords, social media strategizing, and trend hopping. Although we believe in what we’re doing strongly, it has to be on a very personal level in our words stemming from our experience and ideas, nothing else works for us. I think that’s the best way that you can compare it to playing in bands or making films.
Q.I.: We love the relaxed vibe and all the options at your cafe! (2-dollar beer!) What’s next for Urban Rustic?
L.I.: It has to be! Although dealing with raw materials from the local providers that we use (Battenkill Creamery, Murray’s Cheese shop, Brooklyn Brine, DeBragga free range chickens, DiPaolo Turkey etc.) can be more expensive, we find it CRUCIAL to not alienate people based on their income. Our neighborhood has become more affluent in the last few years, but that doesn’t mean that the guys across the street who have been playing handball on those courts for a decade can’t come in and buy a meal or a beer without caring about the sourcing and still be able to afford it.
Part of the small general store feel should definitely be a barrel full of cans of beer on ice with a sign that says, “2 bucks, come and get it”
We have several feelers out for a second location as well as our continued partnerships with music venue The Bell House in Gowanus, event space The Wick in Bushwick, and there are talks of a beach location in the Rockaways this summer. Cross your fingers for us, it going to get a little crazy!