An Upper West Side couple sits on two of the four stools outside Gertrude, a new café on West 96th Street. They’re talking about what it means — how it feels—to see a fresh business enterprise pop up during a pandemic. They tell the owner, Shweta Khare, that her Australian-inspired business is a sign of hope for the neighborhood.
“Small business is the backbone of the city,” Marc Plastrik says after the interaction. “We need Duane Reade, but not on every corner.” He looks to Khare, 37. “We need her. It gives the city an authenticity and uniqueness.”
He and his wife, Debra Plastrik, live around the corner. Debra Plastrik says Gertrude is even more appreciated because it comes “during a time of flight, fear and uncertainty.”
For her part, Khare is used to people wondering about the kind of person who opens a business during a pandemic.
She wondered too, earlier in the year. In her moments of fear, she told her husband, Aroop Chatterjee, that they should take their now 16-month-old daughter and get out. “Let’s get on the next flight to Australia before the borders are closed,” she remembers thinking. “I was scared.”
In the end, though, he went ahead with the plan in which she was financially and emotionally invested. Gertrude opened at 204 West 96th Street on Aug. 15. The name pays tribute to a heralded thoroughfare in Melbourne.
“We’ve not even been here a month and I can already tell you the names of our regulars. People are already asking about gift cards,” Khare says.
A former business consultant, she decided even during a difficult time that she might as well move forward with her plan. She’d spent 2018 looking at properties, struggling to find a site.
“I could stop pursing this,” she told herself as the pandemic took hold in New York, “but I’d invested three years. I knew that I didn’t want to go back to my old profession.”
Even without the global health crisis, Manhattan was a tough place to plan a business. In Australia, it’s easier to launch this kind of business, Khare says. “New York is a very difficult city,” she says.
But she loves her adopted town’s positive energy. She looks around her surroundings and says of the people assembled nearby, “There’s a lot of people staying. There’s a huge population that are kind of city creatures. There’s a vibrancy. It’s never going to go away.”
One plus: her landlord is responsive and recognized the value of places like hers for an area. The rent wound up being more affordable at this location, where the owner has three neighboring buildings. At Gertrude, there’s a sign welcoming customers with wheelchairs and strollers, telling those visitors, facing inaccessible stairs, to ring a bell for attention.
Khare knows about the neighborhood. She’s lived in various locations since attending Columbia University for grad school. She knew what she was looking for as a resident, and not just as a businesswoman.
“I did feel that there was a huge gap in the market for something like this,” she says of Gertrude, which is “a café in an Australian concept.”
Khare was born in India. At four, her parents moved her to Australia, where she grew up. “I’ve had a very international upbringing,” she says, including living in London for four years. Now she wants her business to transcend barriers, just as Australian cafés often feature Asian-inspired elements.
She’s eager to share coffee from a Brooklyn roaster and her own much-heralded baked goods. She turns to the Plastriks, customers on a late-summer day. As Marc Plastrik gets up to leave, Khare asks, “Did you guys get cookies?”
“Yay,” she says.
“Tomorrow,” he says, “the banana bread.”
“There’s a lot of people staying. There’s a huge population that are kind of city creatures. There’s a vibrancy. It’s never going to go away.” Shweta Khare, owner of Gertrude café