An Interview with Claire Chan, Owner of The Elk and Bar Beau
Claire Chan moved to New York in 2009 for a graduate program in fashion. After a few years working in the industry, she stepped back and asked herself, in her own words, “Where do I want to go? What makes me happy? Where am I going to make my mark?” She honed her vision of a neighborhood coffee shop during the year she spent learning the ins and outs of café ownership from scratch.
In 2014, she came across a storefront at 128 Charles Street in Manhattan’s West Village and couldn’t picture opening a business anywhere else. Today, The Elk is a cornerstone of the neighborhood and a flagship Parlor partner.
Four years later, Claire opened Bar Beau in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: a venture that merges her passions for coffee, cocktails, and inventive seasonal fare.
What’s your earliest memory of coffee?
I remember the smell first and foremost. My parents drank regular, nothing-special drip in the morning. Coffee evokes strong memories of my home life and the possibilities of a new day. My mother would host book club meetings: [the smell of] coffee brewing and fresh-cut lilies wafting from downstairs meant there was action in the house.
Photo by Bridget Badore
Can you recall your thoughts leading up to your shops’ Covid-related closures?
My father lives in Hong Kong and told me around New Year’s to be cautious and stay alert. The first two weeks of March were completely surreal.
It was a game-time decision to shut down on March 16th. As an owner, my first priority was to make sure my staff knew I had their backs, no matter what. I called it early in order to keep everyone, both my staff and my customers, safe.
When we closed, my job description totally shifted. Navigating uncharted territory and unknown policies became my day-to-day. The biggest part of my focus has been helping staff through this. They’re like my family, and I have a responsibility to them.
Since then, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations daily. In April, it was unfathomable to think that we wouldn’t have indoor dining by July. Now, who knows? I’ve taken a hard look at my operations with an eye to adaptability and long-term sustainability.
Both The Elk and Bar Beau have since reopened. What were the biggest challenges in reopening?
I knew that if we opened, people would come back. We have such a strong community. They wanted a piece of normalcy and regularity, something their day-to-day coffee spot provides.
And yet I had to make sure my staff had the proper support and confidence to come back to work. The challenges they face every day are now compounded; they’re aiming to maintain standards of customer service and quality in the midst of a pandemic, and working so hard to keep our customers’ trust.
What’s the biggest challenge you face on the horizon?
I have a looming fear of shutting down again in autumn, and New York businesses haven’t received any guidance on what we’ll do when the weather turns in winter. We’ve had to build an entirely new business from scratch at Bar Beau, where the majority of the experience was connected to our indoor space.
It’s an idea factory at this point. We’ve come to accept the notion of failure as a part of the process. If something doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. We’re committed to making it work.
How would you describe yourself to someone who sees you running your businesses? Do you have a message to share with people who have a similar identity?
I self-describe as a minority female owner, and I’m super proud to be one. I’m proud of the fact that I might be an inspiration for someone who looks like me. We’re in a special moment right now. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the importance of representing and embracing your voice. If you’re starting a new venture, ask yourself: what is your experience, and what do you have to say? Use whatever tools you have to create good change, do good things, and come from a place of authenticity.
Why do you work with Parlor Coffee?
Especially in business, the best long-term partners are those that have values and run their business with a similar mindset. I feel like Parlor has parallel values to everything we do. I’m a big believer in building your tribe. I work with people who share our values and vision and are the best at what they do; Parlor is the number one partner I have. My trust in Parlor’s roasting and wholesale support allows me to focus on other parts of my business. That trust is so important to me. And so is the flavor! I can’t forget when you said, “We’ll get you hooked on the good stuff.” It’s undeniably the best. You warned me.