In Chinatown, a Space for Dreamers

How a coffee shop was sustained by the neighborhood it served

| 12 Aug 2021 | 11:59

On the menu: Café au Lait, Latte, and Ling-Mut. Dong Ling-Mut to be precise: a Chinatown staple of iced honey-lemon tea. At Dreamers Coffee House on Henry Street, Daniel Lam and Sandy Truong elevate it with honey-infused lemon slices, and a couple of personal touches.

“The Ling-Mut drink is the honey-lemon spritz,” said Truong. “We put a twist of chia seed and sparkling water.”

Adding a twist to a Chinese classic is just part of the delicate balance Lam and Truong are trying to strike between tradition and innovation. Lam says they are constantly wrestling with how to make the cozy space feel inviting to Chinatown seniors. He noticed these “aunties and uncles” were more comfortable in a traditional Chinese bakery than a third-wave coffee shop.

“Sometimes we make a decision to bring something in, put something on the menu — how does that look to the auntie passing by?” said Lam. “But if you don’t bring it on the menu would a young NYU student who lives above us be turned off?”

Lam was one of those students. He remembers haunting coffee shops in Queens, seeing children, high school students and undergrads figuring out life together. He hopes to recreate that feeling in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where limited square footage makes it hard for people to gather.

“There just aren’t many spaces like that in this neighborhood,” said Lam. “Where you can go and hang out, meet your neighbors, and see the regulars.”

Adult Day Care Center

Lam got to know his Chinatown neighbors when he started working at Golden Town Adult Day Care Center on Canal Street. That’s also where he met Truong, who was a co-worker. Truong grew up on the Lower East Side, but had not tried making coffee prior to opening Dreamers. Luckily, she discovered she enjoyed the work as she went through barista training.

“I did not have coffee shop experience,” said Truong. “And so after signing the lease I went and got some experience and found out that I actually enjoy it.”

Her passion was quickly put to the test. Dreamers opened on January 19, 2020 and was forced to close just two months later. It was the spring of COVID closures and quarantine. Lam and Truong announced the closure on Instagram and then got in a car to stay with Lam’s family in Indiana. But they maintained communication with fellow Chinatown business owners.

“A lot of them did not have the luxury of family a state away,” said Lam. “So we were really keeping an eye on things. And we felt our hearts being pulled back.”

They came back in May, after nearly two months of exile. The city may have been in full lockdown but the neighborhood was ready for them. The shop’s landlord was willing to work out a deal on rent. Friends and neighbors contributed over $4,000.00 to a GoFundMe campaign for the store. And people started stopping by when they reopened on June 3.

“The neighborhood really held us down,” said Lam. “People that came would come by every day.”

Lam, who admits he is “chattier than he should be,” said that having a coffee shop open during COVID felt a lot like working at the Adult Day Care Center. Both places were providing isolated people with community and conversation. It wasn’t just about selling a drink. People needed to talk.

“During that period of time we noticed [that for] a lot of folks coming in here we would be the only people they’d talk to for days at a time,” said Lam. “Understandably right? There was a lot of isolation during that period.”

Online Orders

People still come by, even with many COVID restrictions now lifted. The shop does have a Seamless page for online orders. But Truong says the overwhelming amount of their business is in-person. It takes an extreme weather event for customers to request delivery.

“Ninety-five percent [of business] is here,” said Truong. “That [online] five percent would happen when there’s a snowstorm or bad weather.”

The reason Dreamers customers keep coming back is that community, not coffee, drives the shop. Lam dreams of replacing the shop’s kitchen area with a communal workspace and organizing trips out of the city. These desires show that Dreamers isn’t the end of Lam and Truong’s work at the Adult Day Care Center, but an evolution of it.

“We have high intentions and hopes of programming things out here one day,” said Lam. “And having neighborhood trips to Woodbury Mall.”

Until that day, customers who enjoy the Dreamers Ling-Mut can try the new Spring Time Edition made with Butterfly Pea Flower Tea. Or just a regular House Drip. Both are available at Dreamers, where the neighborhood finds an earnest fusion of cultures.

“We want to be conscious of how we represent what we have and what we offer,” said Lam. “And keep our doors open and keep the invitation open.”