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Coffee No More, Bushwick’s Hearts Café Becomes Natural Wine Store With Community at the Core

The hole in the wall café pivoted during the pandemic, but has stayed true to its mission of serving the neighborhood what it wants.
wine, natural wine, bottle store, hearts brooklyn
Hearts Bushwick. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith.

When Carlos Larkin and Kimberly Ross moved to an apartment just off the Kosciuszko J in 2011 they found the area was "a bit of a desert" for food, coffee and groceries.

A few blocks north, the main Bushwick corridors and side streets had plenty of options, and to the south, Bed-Stuy was awash with tasty treats. But around Broadway? There just wasn't much there, Larkin said.

Knowing they wanted to lay down roots in the area, Larkin and Ross thought about what they would like to see and chatted to neighbors before deciding to take a shot at opening their own space.

wine, natural wine, bottle store, hearts brooklyn
Carlos Larkin of Hearts Bushwick. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith.

In 2016, Hearts opened its doors to precisely pulled lattes, locally baked pastries and an assortment of other high-quality goodies that neighbors had put up their hands for.

"It was great, you could tell the community really wanted it and we've made so many friends," Larkin said. "Don't get me wrong it was terrifying, but it was one of the best things we've done."

At the core of Hearts was the couple's mission to get to know their community, engage with residents new and old, and provide something of value. Over the years Hearts has done that and the couple have become fully embedded in the neighborhood, Larkin smiled: "I'm the head of the block association."

But when the pandemic hit, the future of the coffee shop was less than clear. To top off all the challenges small businesses were facing, "PPE just went to corporations," he said, adding the majority of Black and Latinx-owned businesses didn't receive a thing. "An entire sector of the industry was left out to die."

wine, natural wine, bottle store, hearts brooklyn
Wines are sorted by flavor not region, making it easier for customers to choose something they like. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith.

So, along with his cousin Isaac Wooten, Larkin decided to switch it up and try something new. "Again it was a terrifying time to say f**k it, let's try something different." But they did, and just weeks ago the pair reopened the store as Hearts Wine and Spirits, dealing in carefully curated natural and organic wines and artisanal spirits.

In recent years, natural wine -- generally defined as free from pesticides, chemicals and other additives, and most mechanical intervention -- has gained popularity with wine drinkers across the world. Larkin said it wasn't the growing popularity of the product that swayed him into it, but the fact it was what he liked to drink and what was easiest for his body to digest.

"It made sense for me, this is what I want and like and I talked to a lot of customers and they agreed," Larkin said. And the Hearts staff were all on board, with baristas transitioning from perfecting coffee pours, to learning tasting notes of an array of orange, red, white, rosé and sparkling wines.

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Carlos Larkin, Evan Miyawaki and Allen Alexis at Hearts. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

The same vibe from the original Hearts prevails, where approachability and friendliness greet you at the door. And the same values ring true for the stores products, with wines topping out at $27 and liquor at $45 keeping everything accessible and easy for people new (or not) to natural wine and artisanal spirits. "We're not stuffy, no one's a snob in here," Larkin said. "We've got good stuff for a really decent price."

And so far stock is flying off the shelves, with the team already having to expand the orange wine section to keep up with customer requests. But what Larkin values the most about the new venture is seeing the interest from older residents who weren't drinking natural wine before.

wine, natural wine, bottle store, hearts brooklyn
Hearts Wine and Spirits. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith.

"There are a couple of ladies that get there wines at other spots, and I was able to explain to them about the natural wine here and the next day, I kid you not, they got damn near a case."

Larkin said, like with Hearts Café, he was more than open to suggestions from the community about what they'd like to see on the shelves and hoped that when the pandemic ended it could become more of a community space.

He has a tasting room in mind, where staff can share their knowledge and tips and customers can find out what they like the best. But in the meantime, the team is ready to keep stocking the shelves to get us through this holiday season.