After years of working in virtually every role in the hospitality industry, an opportunity to finally become the boss came up. Here, Kate Monahan explains how her team opened up the Big Apple's newest hotspot.
Dublin native Kate Monahan has lived in New York for almost four years: a time frame that seems minuscule when you consider she is already at the helm of a trendy coffee and wine bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
For most Irish immigrants, a stint in the city’s many bars and eateries is essentially a rite of passage. For Monahan, it was no different.
“I went to dinner the night I arrived here in a bustling Italian restaurant in the West Village. I had a couple of glasses of wine on top of my jet lag so I had no trouble asking were they hiring. As it turned out they needed a hostess and asked me to come back the next day to start,” she said.
At the restaurant, she quickly found her feet and was immersed in the inimitable world of New York hospitality. The fact that the dining spot only “employed handsome Italian men” was, of course, a bonus. Still, there was something about the pace and atmosphere of working in the industry that captivated her.
Soon, she discovered the unofficial two-job-minimum rule that many Irish expats seem to abide by. She assumed a position as Assistant Manager to the owner and GM of a newly opened Irish-owned bar/restaurant, Trading Post, and continued to cut her teeth in the industry.
“Working as front of house and coordinating events in the Financial District was a great way to meet people and network,” Monahan said. “The friends I made there became my extended family and I still gate-crash the annual Christmas party whether they like it or not!”
“Juggling two jobs is the norm in NYC, the work-hard/play-hard mantra lives up to its reputation here. The energy in New York fuels your work ethic and it has rewards for people who aren’t afraid of long hours or having a little side-hustle going on,” she wisely noted.
Of course, working behind the bar is the most lucrative position in hospitality in New York - where the tips are as free flowing as the drinks. All thanks to an impromptu training session with a friend, she spent the next three years tending to the needs of thirsty punters at rooftop bars, sports bars, and cocktail bars.
“I wanted to get into bartending here but my experience was limited to pulling pints of Guinness in my hometown local. I had a friend of mine teach me everything she knew and I gave it a crack. The ability to learn quickly and bluff, a lot, worked to my advantage.”
With an impressive resumé already built up, Monahan was approached by some Irish investors who wanted to try their hand at something new. With the perfect two-floor location on Manhattan’s Upper East Side already secured, together they came up with the perfect concept, named Stella & Fly, and set about making their mark on one of New York’s most authentic and old-school neighborhoods.
“We wanted to develop a concept that allows the locals to start and end their day with us, so our main focus here is coffee and wine. New Yorkers are obsessive about their coffee so it has to be more than just a caffeine delivery system. We serve Yours Truly coffee and care about where and how it’s sourced and make it with love measuring each ground particle to perfection,” Monahan said.
As for wine, well that’s equally important for those caught up in the hectic hustle of NYC.
“We offer wines from around the world, including organic and biodynamic wines and of course, a selection from women winemakers. The sommelier who curated our wine list, Michael Madrigale, did an amazing job of ensuring that no two wines by the glass taste the same, every wine has its own distinctive flavor and body,” Monahan noted. (And we’d certainly drink to that!)
Along with co-owner Nigel, Monahan can be found at Stella & Fly, on 88th Street and First Avenue, practically every day, while other investors remain involved behind the scenes.
“The decision to leave a really steady job working with (and for) amazing people to help open a brand-new establishment was a little daunting but I knew that opportunities like this don’t happen everyday so I jumped right at it,” she admitted. The fact that the bar’s name was a reference to lyrics in one of her favorite songs seemed like another “good sign” to take the leap of faith.
Despite a slow start (they flung open the doors on Memorial Day Weekend in May, a notoriously quiet time for city bars and restaurants as Manhattanites take their annual pilgrimage to the nearest beach) - Monahan says that Stella & Fly has been “building up a regular clientele” from the get-go.
“Being the new kids on the block is a challenge in such a well established neighborhood. A lot of the residents have been here for their whole lives and have naturally seen places come and go as well as changes in the neighborhood itself. Fortunately we’ve been welcomed warmly and the locals have been our bread and butter, it makes my day when I see the
same faces returning for a cup of coffee and a pastry in the morning or bringing their friends to happy hour in the evening,” she smiled.
But what makes Stella & Fly different from the thousands of other places serving libations in New York? Well, Monahan’s on-the-pulse view of both the bar and coffee scene certainly helps. Naturally, her Irish charm is also a major calling card.
“Bar culture is massive in NYC. Any self-respecting bar goer in New York is a regular somewhere and is on a first name basis with the bartender. I’ve had my regular customers follow me from job-to-job and have built friendships with them outside of work. People go to bars in NYC to engage with the person serving their drinks, bartender/therapist is probably a better title for the job,” she laughed.
“NYC coffee shops are also part of the lifestyle here. I’ve learned most people who frequent a coffee shop or bar regularly just really appreciate that little bit of extra effort and personal touch. It’s an escape from their crazy, hectic daily routine. People still crave human connection in today’s world which can sometimes feel very disconnected. It’s an industry that relies on a personal contact to be successful and to be successful in this industry you have to truly enjoy meeting people and be able to have a repertoire with them,” she noted. “We try to give people a good Irish welcome, in a place with a homely, relaxed vibe.”
A warm coffee with a warmer welcome? Make ours a double.