If you’ve ever looked into opening a cafe, restaurant, or bar, it doesn’t take long to be made aware of the many obstacles in your path. Add in the challenges of an unprecedented global pandemic, and the realities of doing business in New York City, and, well, almost anyone might think twice. But this didn’t stop coffee industry veterans Shriver Tran and Jaime Hodgkin, whose enterprising cafe and natural wine bar, High Low, opened in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn last May 18, 2020, just as the pandemic started to shake the city.
In NYC, the effects of the pandemic started with partial capacity until March 20th when the city ordered nonessential businesses to close. Food service was allowed to continue, with entrepreneurs Tran and Hodgkin providing their neighborhood with wine bottles, craft beer, coffee, and southeast Asian-inspired pastries. These were long days for the owners, without much outside help; they are pouring your drinks, brewing your coffee, cooking the food and baking the pastries. You could find one or both of them at the shop every day of 2020.
Bushwick is filled with exemplary natural wine shops like Forêt, Henry’s, and Irving Bottle, and High Low found their niche—and a successful one at that—within an already crowded market by keeping a much smaller, highly curated bottle list. There were no “wrong” bottles here. The wine offerings are driven by Hodgkin, a tenured beverage professional with clear passion, who treats every bottle sold with care and attention. Once I walked in to find a bottle of Ruth Lewandowski’s Feints, a wine I’ve always had trouble finding, sitting there like an ordinary bottle.
As the pandemic progressed into the summer and peak COVID case counts, the cafe persevered to debut with Sey Coffee, served on a Modbar AV ABR, and provided bottled cocktails. The staggering 16 taps behind the bar remained untouched until July when regulations in Brooklyn adjusted and allowed for businesses to construct seating areas in the parking spaces in front of their business. This inch of wiggle room came with the requirement to serve food alongside alcohol. This pivot gave Tran’s vision for modern Vietnamese an opportunity to shine, featuring dishes including clam dip and beef jerky alongside organic aperitifs like Faccia Brutto’s Amaro Gorini.
In October 2020, the COVID positivity rate reached 5%, which threatened the reopening progress. Stage 4 reopening meant the return of gyms, museums. The NY governor’s office rejected Mayor Deblasio’s bid for closing nonessential business again, just in time for Tran’s mom from Sacramento, CA to visit and host a pop-up pho party in High Low’s backyard. Warming pho, a vegan version of Bum Bo Hue Chay, and snacks like egg rolls were served alongside crisp natural wines, including Pretty in Pink from Co Cellars. Tran’s mom’s food was a hit; the pop-up extended its residency for nearly three months.
Finally, more than a year after their initial opening, New York lifted the state of emergency on June 15th and High Low Beverage Company started serving their guests inside for the very first time. They opened with five cocktails, 12 beers, and four non-alcoholic offerings. The excitement and the joy of reopening also came with a sharp policy change: businesses in NYC were given 24-hour notice to stop their alcohol sales programs. Restaurants and bars all over the city were saddled with thousands of dollars of unsold wine. For High Low, that meant cases and cases of wine were en route and distributors said it was too late to cancel the order.
Natural wine bars in Bushwick are not hard to come by: You can find a favorite like Claus Presinger’s Puszta Libra at the new The Ten Bells and Momento Mori’s Brutal at Ops less than a mile away. But High Low is marked as an industry insider’s favorite because of its sense of connection: closer to the spirit behind these wines, the moms who travel the country for their kids, and tastemakers like Hodgkin and Tran. If you sit at High Low long enough you’ll see friends from Sey Coffee, Stumptown Coffee, Variety Coffee, and Daughter all pass through after their shifts for a hello and a drink.
Most recently, NYC regulations have back-peddled: starting August 16th, indoor dining will be restricted to fully vaccinated guests or negative tests will be required. For High Low, this means they are required to check for a paper record of their vaccine, the Excelsior Pass, or verification through the app NYC Safe. It’s never a dull moment at this little Brooklyn coffee and wine bar, where the highs are high and the lows are low. That’s High Low for you.
Kathy Altamirano is a coffee professional and freelance journalist based in New York City. This is Kathy Altamirano’s first feature for Sprudge.