I have always had a fascination with New York City. I had a romantic view of the city as a place where intellectuals, artists and musicians hung out. A muse to many, I wanted to be a part of that vibe. I wanted the energy it created to fuel my creative aspirations. I wanted to see if amongst millions I could find a community where I could go to a cafe, have the barista call out my name and enjoy a cup of coffee. I wanted to look around and say, “this is home,” even if it was for a moment in time.
So I booked a flight. My wife and I traveled across the country and settled into our rental loft in the heart of Williamsburg. The view from our third floor window showed the city in all its glory. Without my wife noticing, an overwhelming feeling of excitement took over my body like a wave coming onto shore. I was in New York. I was in the big city where dreams are being chased and achieved.
Hunger took over and our landlord directed us to a restaurant, an “Aussie” place as he described it, that was a stone’s throw away from our place. St. Balmain was written on the window and little did we know how much of an effect it would have on us. We found ourselves deeply saddened by the end of our stay—not because we were leaving the city—but because of the people who we were leaving.
It started with a simple hello from an unassuming man that had a hipster vibe with a gentleman’s heart. His accent was Australian (something which I fancy) and it was friendly. Come to find out we had some mutual friends back home—a complete happenstance moment in a backyard patio of Brooklyn. Numbers were exchanged and we would connect over the week periodically. As we walked back to our place, I looked down at my phone and saw the name Kane Keatinge—the owner of St. Balmain. Our first friend in the city and, like the wall read in his place, he welcomed us home.
After almost daily visits to the cafe, we connected with the whole staff, calling them by name. In our hearts we knew this was the place we wanted to write about. We contacted Kane about re-telling his story of the origins of St. Balmain. Over coffee, we sat on a Wednesday morning, the day before we were about to depart and he shared his tale.
The tale of St. Balmain.
What is the origin of the name St. Balmain?
Balmain is a suburb of Sydney, Australia. It was a place I had lived for ten years before moving to New York City. My wife and I were living and working in an area called the Hills District but found ourselves traveling over an hour to Balmain to hang out with friends. Finally, we said, “This is stupid; why don’t we live where we want to hang out and travel to work?” So we bought a little apartment there—which now, at the time, sounds crazy! But that is how awesome Balmain was and still is.
What made you move to New York City?
The journey at the beginning was pretty rough. I moved here to help my old mates Carl and Joel, who were starting up a church in the city. I was looking for work and found a job at a bar in Harlem for the first year because I had to pay rent and support my family. It was a really small bar, maybe 400 square feet. There were two people in the place—one person up front and one in the kitchen. The neighborhood I was in was rather tough. I had a baseball bat under the counter that I had to use twice—just to threaten people. I didn’t hit anyone with it, I just wanted to keep them in check. I loved doing that job. It was fun!
Where did you end up of settling?
We stayed in all kinds of places to find out where we wanted to live. I always thought if I was going to live in New York City I would want to stay in the most happening spot. We traveled around for three months staying in furnished apartments trying to find out where we wanted to live and then we found Williamsburg and spent a week there. It felt exactly like Balmain. It was close enough to the city where it took me five minutes to get there but it was far enough away from the city where I felt like I could breathe. My wife, Karla turned to me and said, “This feels like home.”
I agreed with her, it did.
You can wake up early and go for a walk with the kids. The streets are clean and it’s quiet. The sun is out and the birds are chirping because for some reason they are here in the morning. You walk around and you feel like it’s your own little town. All of my New York friends always laugh because I say I am heading into town. “It’s the city,” they say. No, it’s a town. That is what it is. We love it. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and I wouldn’t want to raise a family anywhere else at the moment. This is perfect.
Can you describe the process it took to open up St. Balmain?
Before St. Balmain occupied this spot, there were two restaurants here, a vegan place and then an Indian place. One day I was walking by and saw a man sitting outside. He explained the place was going under and they were going to sell it. This was around 10 o’clock at night. I rushed home, talked with my wife, and called up some of my mates and said I had a business venture for them. With everybody all in, by 11:00 o’clock that night we shook hands with the guy and said, “Hey, we are going to take the place.” We had the key the next day, which was a Saturday. By Sunday, we gutted the place. Looking back we shouldn’t have ripped everything out because we really needed some of it. We just got excited!
Why did you want to open a cafe/restaurant?
The answer is two-fold. First, most people in New York live in a shoe box. They are lucky to have the square footage where they can eat, sleep, watch television and go to the bathroom.
People can’t hang out with people at their house. Sure in Los Angeles and Australia you and I can call up our mates and invite them to our house for dinner. Here it is more convenient for them to come over to the place below their mate’s house for dinner and a drink. The whole idea was to create a lounge room for people to have a place where they felt comfortable to invite their guests. We saw it as a place to build community.
Secondly, we wanted to create a place that had a great product and match that with great service. In my experience, I have seen some annoying qualities about establishments in the city. You go to a restaurant/cafe and you were left with the feeling that everybody just thinks they are better than you and as a result they treat you like dirt, and they want you to tip them on top of that. So we wanted a great product, great service, and we wanted a place where we could build community.
What was the inspiration for the menu?
Let me tell you the backstory first. We actually had a chef that we were going to work with who was on America’s next top chef—a cool and handsome man. Shortly after we started to develop the menu, he informed us he was leaving. It left us scrambling. Luckily, we contacted Sarah Glover, a chef from Australia we had worked with before. She came in and created our menu and pastries. She worked her booty off. A complete Godsend.
The inspiration behind the menu was that we wanted a place that we could go everyday if we needed to. We needed options and a good price point where people weren’t going to break the bank. We created a menu that appealed to everyone. For the more health-conscious crowd, we had options like an açaí bowl, or avocado on toast. For people who were craving something not-health-conscious, we created something called the Meat Ball Surfer—one of my biggest contributions to the menu. You can order a bowl of fries and then throw meat balls on the top. As I said, not a healthy option by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good for your taste buds!
A lot has been written about your place in regards to the jelly-filled donut with a syringe. Can you tell us a little more about that?
The item was initially made for the children. Sarah came to me and said, “I have this great idea that involves donuts. The kids are going to squeeze the white chocolate ganache in the donut with a syringe and they are going to love it!” We were like yeah, cool, lets go for it. Then we asked ourselves, “How come the kids don’t want this but the adults do?” It took on a life of its own. It was ridiculous!
Something that you seem very intentional with is your coffee program. What made you so conscious and aware of your coffee choice (Intelligentsia)?
There is a lot of bad coffee in New York City, but there is also a lot of good coffee too. We kinda feel like this whole place came out of necessity. Like I said we have lived here for fours years and have been to every coffee place. Some of it was okay but not great. We decided that, if we did make coffee, we needed to make sure our product was good. I had known about Intelligentsia in Los Angeles and Chicago—it was great. We had talked to their reps as well as other good coffee places. We liked how they worked with us and we ended up creating a good relationship with them. We trust the company and their product wholeheartedly.
What does St. Balmain mean to you? Not the name but the the idea or concept?
St. Balmain was created to build a community focused cafe/restaurant. The goal is for it to be driven by the community and to fit the needs of Williamsburg. In particular, I feel the area needs a class act establishment who offers a welcoming atmosphere as well as food that is top notch with a fair price point. I want people to feel comfortable where they can order a healthy option from the menu or change their mind and order two bowls of meatballs and not feel bad about it. I want to be able to do that here and I want people to have that option as well.
To me that’s what makes New York City so special—it’s a massive place built on small communities.
Lastly, what makes the city special to you?
I think what makes New York City so special is that it is so community driven. It seems so big. If you are on the outside people say, “Oh, New York City is so unfriendly, it’s so crazy, people getting yelled at and it’s busy.” That’s not what it is like at all, at least not to me! It’s personal, relaxing and friendly. I know the people who live down the road. The ones who live close to here. The ones I can rely on. I can run into the local market and share stories about life and business with owners. They bend over backwards to help us out just to see us succeed. To me that’s what makes New York City so special—it’s a massive place built on small communities.
The day after the interview, my wife and I went to St. Balmain for breakfast for our last meal before headed back to Los Angeles. As I ordered, Mr. November was playing by the Brooklyn-based band The National—which happens to be one of my favorite bands. My heart sunk and I fell for the city, if I hadn’t already. The song, the place (St. Balmain), New York and the people were everything I had romanticized the city to be. It was inspirational. It was amazing. It was fulfilling.
Finally this is what I believe St. Balmain means to me and hopefully to the community of Williamsburg.
To build community, especially in a city, you need to build a space for community to be achieved and cultivated. A place where people can escape everyday life, not just the city in particular but just life in of itself. It reminds me of an old Tom Petty line in Free Falling—“gonna leave this world for a while”—St. Balmain is a safe haven. A place of solitude. Even if it is to enjoy a cup of coffee or a nice meal—you just want a place to escape and have a sense of peace and quiet just for yourself. It’s amazing what the power of a place, food, and people can do. It transforms and builds.
The tale of St. Balmain.
178 N 8th St, Brooklyn, NY