According to Michael Little, his success in small business has been “80% luck and 20% hard work.” It isn’t difficult to see what he means. Before opening Lost Weekend in August 2011, Michael taught American History to eighth graders in the South Bronx, had limited knowledge of fashion and graphic design (“Does Adobe Pagemaker count?”), and had no intention of owning his own business. “Literally from the first conversation about Lost Weekend to me having keys was about two weeks.”
When he opened two months later, Michael would put up a sign in the window that read, “Surfing, be back at 1pm,” an unusual move for a new shop peddling coffee to the under-caffeinated on their morning commutes. “I’m willing to make some sacrifices in cashing checks to be able to be authentic and be a part of a community,” he says.
For Michael, that community spans from the streets of the Lower East Side to the shores of Rockaway Beach. Being a part of both his neighborhood and the local surf scene share equal importance to him, and the crossover between the two is where Lost Weekend flourishes. “If you came everyday, we’d get to know each other and I’d invite you surfing. So if you saw a sign one day that said ‘Closed, surfing,’ you’d get it and just come back later.”
This seemingly haphazard approach to business has guided Michael into creating a space that is part café, part retailer, part gallery, and part land-locked surf club. Locals and wave enthusiasts meet over cups of Parlor Coffee to chat across the communal table, flip through the latest edition of The Surfer’s Journal, or peruse the racks of independent goods and gear. The shop even has its own line of clothing sold exclusively in Japan that Michael co-designs with a fellow surfer.
While he might be quick to attribute his success to old fashioned good luck, a visit to Lost Weekend suggests it has more to do with Michael’s ability to serve a niche market well, or his tasteful eye for design and products, or his love of being a part of the community. It could even be that signature go-with-the-flow attitude surfers are known for.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY MIA SAKAI
You were teaching 8th grade in the Bronx before opening Lost Weekend. How did the idea for Lost Weekend come about and what made you decide to act upon it?
You mean how did I go from stemming the tide of educational inequity to artisanal coffee? The first six years of my New York experience was living in the Lower East Side and commuting to the South Bronx. Weekends I would surf or hang out in my neighborhood. I wanted a space in my neighborhood with good coffee where people could meet. That wasn’t here before I opened. One night I was playing soccer with a couple of buddies and afterwards we grabbed dinner and started kicking around this idea. My friend, Chad Eggers, knew the guys that owned this building at the time. Two weeks later, the owners said, “Here are the keys, do what you want with it, we’ll sign the papers later.”
It sounds like the opportunity fell into your lap. Was owning your own business always something you wanted to do?
No, not at all. I helped my uncle open the Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co. in Carmel, California in 1997. Within five years he had four locations and was roasting out in the valley. So maybe the seed was planted there. I knew a little bit of what coffee was about and how to do it. When I got the keys to the space it was late May, early June of 2011. School was just wrapping up for the year and it was like, shit, this is for real. I thought I’d be able to open in June/July and have the summer to see if it was going to work or not, then make the choice about returning to teaching. That was silly to think I could judge if a business was going to work based off of the first two months. We didn’t open until August, and I never went back to teaching.
What have you learned since starting your business?
Do what you do well and don’t be concerned with what is in trend at the moment. Success is just getting to be a part of people’s routines and lives.
My primary function is to take care of the people around me — employees, customers, the neighborhood.
Wear lots of sunscreen!
How much money did it take to open and how did you find the capital?
It didn’t cost me a lot of money to get into the space. I’m gonna say to open the doors we maybe spent $50,000. Half of that was probably on the coffee equipment. I did the build on sweat equity and with reclaimed lumber so it was relatively inexpensive. A buddy of mine is an electrician and helped with all the electrical. I hired my super for $500 to plumb the place. I built everything myself. As far as getting the money, there’s the good people at Mastercard and American Express and Visa. We did part of it on credit and part of it was capital that Chad had laying around. I had my 401K. I threw everything at it. I had this very clear idea that for it to succeed, I had to throw whatever I had at it. So I gave it my retirement.
For most companies starting out, establishing a strong brand identity is a critical piece of the puzzle. How much do you think brand identity matters?
I’m really cautious when people say “brand identity” or “lifestyle brand” because I think that’s sort of copping to something. Everything I’ve done here is just a reflection of the life that I’m living. None of it is postured. I think people will come here and either have a good response to it or hate it and think I’m an asshole and wonder why all this weird shit is in here. But if you can buy into the vision and see the whole picture of Lost Weekend, then you’ll get that it’s just my lifestyle and the lifestyle of the people around me. That community part of it is more than the brand.
Lost Weekend began as a café but is now part retailer and part gallery. How did that evolution occur?
When we opened, I would store my surf boards here. I’d make coffee then go out and surf in Rockaway. I’d be in the line up and someone would say, “You’re that guy with that shop. Can I store my board there?” I thought, sure, why not? Boards starting being stored here and when we were about to go surf, we’d realize we needed wax. So I started carrying surf wax. Then someone broke a leash and I thought maybe I should stock leashes and fins as well. The idea was that we’d have everything we needed here. It was literally just an organic process. Every piece has been curated, but curated in a sense that it’s totally based on functionality and an organic sense of what goes with what.
You also have a clothing line of the same name. How did that come about?
We’re right in between Freeman’s Sporting Club and Project No. 8. One day we were loading surf boards in the car and these five Japanese guys came by and asked if we had t-shirts. We didn’t have any and hadn’t thought about making them before. They said, “If you make a t-shirt, let us know.” A month later I made some t-shirts for me and the guys I go surfing with. Someone posted it on Instagram and the next day the VP of this company that has 150 stores in Japan called me and said, “Can I buy 1000 pieces?” That’s kind of how it started. Every time they’d come, they’d ask if I had something new, like a hoodie. So I’d make a hoodie and they’d order 500 of them. Now I have seven distributors in 40 stores in Japan. The thing has grown just based on what they’re asking for.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Wednesday, January 14, 2015 | Sunrise: 7.18am | Conditions at Rockaway Beach: 2-3′ waves, 40°F water temp
Which part of the business — the clothing, the coffee, the art — is the most profitable and why?
The clothing. But everything works together. Say you come in here and get coffee and are part of the scene. You need some shampoo and you know I’ve got all natural, water-soluble Malin + Goetz products. You’re about to get on an airplane so you grab a Surfer’s Journal and some SPF, or a beach towel. Everything works together. The retail part is fueled by the fact that this is the spot where you get your coffee every day. I’m not interested in just being a retailer, like an empty shop with some surf boards and clothing. I want to do something that’s more community oriented. People come in on a regular basis and get to interact with the space. It’s not just transactional. The customers I’m interested in are the ones that want to be a part of it.
When you opened, there wasn’t a lot down here. How has the neighborhood changed and how do you view that change?
It’s no mistake that Mission Chinese moved further south into this neighborhood, or that a giant hotel is opening on the corner, or that Billy Kirk is here, or Pies ‘n’ Thighs just opened. People are moving this direction. That’s great as far as creating more neighborhood culture and having more options. Obviously there’s a balance and a push/pull because for those things to happen, people are being displaced and some of the context of the neighborhood is lost. As a small business owner, I find myself using whatever power I have to cultivate both sides of that spectrum. I want to make sure I’m not the guy who’s cannibalizing on this expansion. We have a deal with the teachers here where coffee costs them nothing, because if you’re teaching sixth grade, a $4 cup of coffee probably isn’t your jam. We try to help out in the community and be a part of efforts to retain some of those cultural textures that are maybe being painted over by all this development.
Changing career paths is becoming increasingly more common. What has that been like for you personally?
It’s definitely changed me. The process of life is that things are always in transition. Relationships come and go, pets die and you get a new one, you open a business and you change jobs. It’s a little Forrest Gump-y, but all that is the fabric of life, right? I think my peace with that is resigning myself to being open to the flow. I knew I had a lease for five years and was going to throw everything I had at it for those five years. I don’t want to look back at the end and think, I wish I would have done X, or I should have done more of Y. So I’m just putting everything that comes down the channel into it. On the outside, I get to surf more and be part of this community. I’m on the board of two non-profits that are doing neighborhood preservation and development. Obviously, I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if I had stayed in the South Bronx teaching eighth grade.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own shop?
There’s this story in business lore. A businessman goes to Mexico and meets a fisherman. The fisherman gets up in the morning, has coffee, goes fishing, sells some fish and eats the rest for dinner with his family. The next day he does the same thing. The business man says, “If you get a second boat, you could catch twice as much fish and make twice as much money. In a year, you could have an entire fleet and employees. In another year, you could have a dock and a processing center. A couple years later, you could sell everything to a bigger business. Then you’d have enough money to get up in the morning, have coffee, go fishing, and eat dinner with your family.” The idea is that we do this thing, we get in the race, we hustle, we sell it, and then we have enough money to retire and do what’s important to us. What I want to do is what’s happening. I’m a bit anomalous in that if I don’t make a million bucks here, I’m ok with that. So my advice is do what you want to do.
Wax Magazine. www.readwax.com.
What Youth Magazine. www.whatyouth.com.
More on Michael
Salisbury, Katie. “Lost Weekend: The Cool Surf Coffee Shop You Need to Check Out.” www.williamandpark.com. November 29, 2014.
Eckert, Ellie. “Coffee Talk with Michael Little of Lost Weekend.” www.citybrewed.com. March 20, 2014.
Wright, Christian. “On Orchard Street, a Place of Fresh Starts.” The New York Times. December 31, 2011.
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