Opening Doors When the Rest Are Closed

Twist Coffee Brings New Life to Dyker Heights Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

For months during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, businesses across New York City were closing their doors permanently at a pace that had not been seen since the Great Depression. In Dyker Heights, four businesses within a nine block span closed along the main boulevard of 13th Avenue. This was a sizable hit for such a small community. As numbers related to the pandemic improved, one previously closed storefront was suddenly filled with construction workers and soon enough in August, Twist Coffee was open. 

“We live one block away from the shop,” said owner Mody Khalil. “When our family moved here ten years ago, we always wanted a place where we can sit and have a cup of coffee, and then the idea for Twist was born.” 

Like many others in the area, frustrations with the lack of businesses within walking distance was building for Khalil. “You’ve got La Bella Marketplace, a pork store, and a diner. After that, you’re screwed,” said another Dyker Heights resident Matthew Sypa. “If you live in this area, you better make sure you have a car to get to Bay Ridge.”

Bay Ridge is not far for those with a car, but the over two mile drive would take significantly longer for those who chose to take the walk.

Shortly after Khalil moved to the neighborhood, he noticed the deserted atmosphere of the businesses in the neighborhood and pledged to do something about it and give residents a more convenient option.

There is a Dunkin Donuts store just three blocks away from Twist, but for those looking for a small business style cup of coffee, the nearest shop is Coffee Rx which happens to be 20 minutes away by foot, and for those with a car just three minutes but parking options are limited.

“Ordinarily, you would have to go to Bay Ridge or somewhere on 86th Street to get a homemade cup of coffee,” Khalil explained. “Eventually we just got tired of it and figured we would open our own place finally.”

The only obstacle that stood in their way was the virus that had stopped the world in its tracks, COVID-19

All together, nearly 3,000 businesses had closed in New York City during the height of the pandemic according to the New York Times. No neighborhood in any borough was spared from the haunting reality of a new normal caused by COVID-19. Even with the disturbing reality at hand and all of the obstacles they were bound to face, the Khalil family of four decided that now would be the time to open their dream business. 

“We were all home during the pandemic,” said Lamo,“We had a lot of time to think about going beyond our current jobs because now we finally had the time to do that. My husband and I thought long and hard about opening and we just decided that we had to go for it now.”

By April, Lamo explained that initial plans were in the works. He believed his plan would bring much needed new life into Dyker Heights. 

As with opening any business, it was a risk. The married couple of over 20 years decided to quit their jobs amidst the most volatile economic backdrop in U.S. history and extend all the time and energy that they had into building their dream business.

There were no available storefronts along the main drag of Dyker Heights on 13th Avenue between 75th and 84th Street that would be suitable for a coffee shop. That was until May when a hair salon had closed in part due to the ban on barbers and hair stylists being open and operational.

“It was unfortunate circumstances that the previous owner had to shut down business, but this spot is the best place probably in the whole neighborhood,” Mody said.

Twist Coffee is what some would consider prime real-estate. The shop sits on the corner right across the street from the neighborhood’s most popular supermarket. Next door sits another neighborhood favorite, B&A Pork Store. On a normal day, there is an immense amount of foot traffic within the one block span. 

The shop is proudly run as a family business with the future of the Khalil family in mind.

“Being our own boss is great and all; but we really do this to do something for our kids and their future,” Lamo said. “The only challenge is not getting a break from your husband the whole time!” 

As intended when the shop first opened, Twist Coffee offers a different experience than what one would ordinarily have at any other business in the area. Among these experiences is the indoor dining experience that have unfortunately been restricted once again by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“It’s different the way we decorated things in here,” said Lamo. “A lot of the places here look the same, so we went in another way and decorated with lots of yellows and brighter colors. It’s our way of standing out and trying to be different.”

Immediately upon entering the shop, customers are greeted with the smell of coffee that is so strong that it finds its way underneath a face mask. Large, white marble countertops enclose the barista area and underneath is a plethora of fresh donuts, muffins, and other pastries including scones, croissants, and danishes. Special menu items also include mozzarella bread and even ice cream in the summer months--a request from Khalil's daughter. Customers first walking into the store might also notice a large refrigeration area filled with cakes and pies from the local dessert supplier 11 blocks east. 

“It feels like you’re in a different place!” said new Twist Coffee customer Abby Miller. “It’s nice to have a new kind of experience instead of just going to Dunkin’ or Starbucks. It’s very homey here. I love it personally.”

“The coffee is delicious, and the food is just right for a coffee shop,” remarked Sypa. “Oh and the prices are good too!”

Big chain coffee shops struggle with creating an atmosphere of comfort with bland interior design and crowded spaces. In an era of social distancing, Mody, who designed the shop thought of how to combat this.

“The flow of traffic wraps around the front of the store instead of going to the back and crowding people in,” Mody explained. “More natural light from the storefront can get into the whole shop too.” 

Comfort was the key design point for the Khalil’s when they were conceptualizing their new coffee shop. None of the tables inside are for just two, but instead for four, and aside from tables, there is a communal bench area near the window to, “encourage conversation,” as Mody described. While this sort of style might not be exactly the right fit during a time of social distancing, the Kahlil’s are confident that the arrangements they set up will be welcomed when all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. 

“We want to create a place where people feel comfortable hanging out with friends and family,” said Mody. “There’s nothing better than enjoying company over a nice cup of coffee and maybe a pastry with other people. We want to be like a living room for the neighborhood,” Mody added.

Residents are eager to make them a staple of the neighborhood. “Any time I walk into the shop, I’m greeted with a smile,” said Matthew Sypa. “It’s hard to see underneath the mask but I can tell Lamo is smiling every time a customer walks in and she always knows my order too. Can’t beat a double iced espresso after a long day at work.”

Though the Khalil’s are excited to become Dyker Heights’ living room, the challenges caused by COVID-19 still are affecting business. Many in Brooklyn are still out of work due to the pandemic leaving some room to be desired for consistency in Twist’s customer base.

“Some days are really good and busy and then there are other times when business is slow,” said Mody. “We were expecting that to happen,” Lamo added. “Right now we just need to establish ourselves in the neighborhood and wait till life gets back to some normal before we start having real concerns about how viable we are as a business.”

While they may not show concern currently for their blossoming coffee shop, the uncertainty that surrounds a second possible shutdown is cause for panic. 

“I don’t even want to think about a shutdown,” said Lamo. “As a business owner of a many years that’s a scary thought, let alone us who have had this place open for just a few months.”

The Khalil’s like many other new small business owners have dipped into their savings as the two don’t pay themselves just yet.

Regardless of what a pandemic filled and uncertain future holds, the enthusiasm the owners have received from neighborhood residents has given Lamo and Mody hope.

“The reception has been great, really great. People want to support us and they do a lot of times,” said Lamo. “You know this neighborhood is great to and for us. We definitely made the right decision when we moved here ten years ago. So hopefully New York stays open and so will we.”