I attended an all-girls school from kindergarten through my high school graduation. Two of the things that growing up in such a tight-knit environment taught me are: 1. The importance of women helping other women, and 2. the necessity and nourishing benefits of a strong community.
I’ve made it no secret that the adjustment of moving to New York wasn’t the easiest for me in the beginning. But, it has been with the help of my delightful friends and my super cool co-workers that I’ve been feeling more and more at home each day.
Now, one of my very good friends from home (who I’ve known since Pre-K!!) also recently moved to the city and is working for the loveliest wine bar in the East Village that happens to be owned by two alums from our high school. That wine bar is Lois!
Lois was created by Nora O’Malley (Owner and Beverage Director) and Phoebe Connell (Owner and Chef), two high school friends from Cleveland, Ohio, who reconnected in adulthood after moving to New York and joining the food/ wine business.
When the ladies behind Lois invited me and my team to stop by for a drink, I was giddy at the thought of introducing my Atelier co-workers (who have become such an integral part of my support network here!) to a space created by two women who are a product of the same community that raised me!
And because it’s Nourishment Month at the Atelier, it was truly all too perfect. I love the fact that Nora and Phoebe are currently employing my good friend (and fellow alum—yay for women helping other women professionally!). I love the fact that I met them through the new community in New York I’ve been forging through my work and my relationships. And on top of all of that nourishing goodness, the FOOD and the WINE (that’s what we’re here for after all!!) couldn’t be more delicious. And the bar is as cozy and inviting as could be, instantly reminding me of the friendliness of the Midwest, except for in the heart of NYC! It’s officially my new go-to spot (can I call myself a New Yorker now that I have one of those? No? Ok, I tried…). Read on for more from Nora and Phoebe on their idea for wine on tap, the nostalgia of the menu, the intentionality behind the non-pretentious vibe, and why they think they’ve found the best block in the city!
Linne: What made you want to open a wine bar? And why the East Village?
Nora: After high school, Phoebe and I reconnected here in New York. She was managing the beer bar next door and put an ad on Facebook for someone to manage the wine store that was owned by the same guy. I had just left my life in PR to start working at a wine shop and no one would hire me! I thought, ‘Oh, maybe Phoebe will!’ She passed my info along to David—he hired me that day. We both started working here.
I had lived in Italy after college and they do a lot of wine on tap there. It’s a really simple, easy way to be able to taste a lot of things, learn about wine, and not spend too much money.
I got super into the idea and had been tracking it for the five years I’d been living in New York. At this point, Phoebe and I were both at a point in our careers where we wanted to start our own thing. I told her about my idea and suggested we could have a whole menu to go with it! Phoebe was in Food Studies, just graduated, and had always been a chef.
We thought it’d be a great pairing. And then, randomly, this spot came up for rent right between the two shops! It was serendipity!
Phoebe: It was a completely empty storefront. It was previously the office of someone running for city council. It looked totally different. We took possession that December and both of our families were in town that year for Thanksgiving. We took them over to the place and were like, ‘This is gonna to be our bar!’ and they were like, ‘Whaaat? This?’ They truly saw the full before and after.
We were so lucky with this space coming up and it being such a family on this block. There was one point where we weren’t sure if the space would come through and we started having a conversation about whether or not we would go elsewhere. Would it be going south of Houston? Would it mean going to the West Village? Would it be going to Brooklyn? But, we decided that no matter what, we wanted to stay in this neighborhood. We knew our clientele. We had this amazing opportunity to know our customers even before they became our physical customers. It’s such a lovely community here and it was important to us that our first place be here.
Linne: The design in here is so unique and specific. It feels very ~cool~ but also very cozy. What was the inspiration behind the design?
Nora: Phoebe and I were pretty aligned on most things. We knew that we wanted it to be really cozy and inviting, but also very clean. We wanted to keep the focus on the food, wine, and hospitality. Luckily, one of my friends from years before had started an interior hospitality design firm. We were actually the second project that he worked on! Without him, we would have been all over the map. He really helped hone all the different vibes we were putting out, and was able to execute the design in a way we never would have been able to.
Phoebe: The things that we weren’t totally sure about, he completely knew how to make perfect. For example, I really didn’t want mirrors, but we did want to make the space feel bigger. He was like, ‘Why don’t we do circular mirrors/ so it’s not one huge mirror?’ He took everything we were spieling at him and made them into a beautiful reality.
Nora: He also introduced us to our graphic designers, who helped with the concept for the menu. They did our logo and our website, but also the wallpaper in the back. That’s actually our logo just stretched out! The three of them worked with us in a very collaborative process.
Phoebe: When we were launching Aida (their line of packaged pantry staples and entertaining essentials), we called up the same three designers and said, ‘We would love to work with you on packaging.’ They they had never done packaged food before, but they knew our aesthetic behind Lois better than anyone and were able to apply that to Aida.
Linne: Can you speak to the nourishing factors of the space you’ve created and what that can offer your customers, whether it be through food, friends, drinks, etc…
Nora: It’s definitely cooler to say that we didn’t try that hard, but really, from the very first day, we tried incredibly hard to make sure that everyone that walked in here felt super comfortable. That was our first word: comfort. The whole point of Lois is to take the pretension out of something that can be very intimidating! Being both from Ohio, we played on that a lot. We told all our first employees, ‘We’re from Ohio, people are nice in Ohio.’ We didn’t want it to feel like a typical New York bar where you walk in and everyone is too cool and you have to fight to be seen or heard. Even now, four years later, every single day we are super intent on all our employees reflecting that. The first thing someone hears when they walk in is, ‘Hello!’ and the last thing they hear is, ‘Goodbye!’
It’s a really welcoming environment, in addition to the fact that you’re going to be nourished by the food and the wine. Hopefully, the energy and comfort of the space allows you to feel a little bit of nourishment. I see that reflected in moments such as when people come through and have their engagement parties here who also had their first dates here. Or, people have their going away party here because they’ve been coming here every week for the whole time they’ve been living in New York. That, to me, is such a beautiful, full circle moment. The space gave them something and they want to celebrate that. It’s very touching
Phoebe: We have a really small kitchen. When I was building the menu, it was this Tetras of how we could get things in and have them fit physically in the space. But, we ended up with a menu that reflects the foods we both really love—that are really bright, but are also very comforting foods. The reason we have sausage rolls on the menu is because once I was traveling and had eaten a sausage roll and it was like from a gas station or something but it was so, so good. And it was such a wonderful moment! I wanted to put it on the menu because of that memory. That’s how a lot of our food is.
Whether you know a lot about food and wine or you don’t, at Lois, we want you to know you can get something both accessible and extraordinary.
Linne: Hearing you both talk about the community and how you’ve really gotten to know everyone…that is so cool! Especially for someone like me, who just moved here and misses those elements of Ohio!
I also think its so wonderful how you’re both Laurel School alums and that you’re now employing Maddie, another alum! And here I am, another alum! It’s exciting to see us all joining this new community in New York. Is that notion of creating community important your business model? How do those values play a part in what you’ve created?
Nora: Phoebe has worked on this block longer than I have, but I was attracted to it mostly because it felt like each business was really a part of a larger family. I don’t think that exists in every part of New York, but certainly does in this neighborhood. Here, there are neighbors that have become friends and random customers who have become regulars. Its intentional. We work really hard to keep it this way. Its not just a natural thing…I mean it is, but we’re really careful to make sure that everyone we hire understands our philosophy, which is about making people feel warm, welcome, educated, and nourished. By osmosis, we attract customers who align with that philosophy! It became this lovely closed loop of community, which is a really special thing to have in this city. I don’t even know if I would still be in New York if I hadn’t found this neighborhood, this block. It’s not easy to carve out that community!
Phoebe: It’s so important. That’s what changed my New York experience, when I stumbled on over to this neighborhood and was like, ‘What is this place?’
And, in terms of a larger community, we really care about things like being part of the Laurel community, a community of female business owners, a community of business owners who have a shared ethos about fair worker treatment, etc.
That’s a rewarding element of being all the way over here on Avenue C… we can be in this itty, bitty, 500 sq. foot place, but play a much larger role as well. That’s why we started Aida, too. We wanted another outlet to push beyond these four walls of Lois!
Nora: I think all three of us are very lucky that we came from a place that taught us about community from the beginning. That has carried through! The amount of Laurel girls that walk through here, even women who are 20 years older than us, but were taught by Mr. Connell (Phoebe’s father, a long-time History teacher at Laurel School), and other people from Cleveland who read about it! It’s really reassuring to see that community, that was started, for me, seventeen years ago, is still trickling in and becoming a part of this new community here! It’s allowed us to create this venn diagram of support and people we can share what we do with!
Phoebe: The laurel contingency is strong. Super strong. There have been Laurel events here, people randomly showing up and noticing the ring (our Laurel School class ring which has featured the same design for decades!)…
Phoebe: We had a girl come who was here working on her senior project, she couldn’t even drink, but she came with her mom and was like, ‘I just wanted to be here!’ That will never lose importance for us. As we get older, we want to return that to other alums, to other parts of this community who we may not even know yet, through mentorship or patronizing other establishments!
Nora: Opening a place like this, you realize how big of a community you actually have! We thought we were opening up this tiny place. But, people we’ve never even met are telling friends to come here!
Phoebe: It’s almost magical!
Lois is located at 98 Avenue C. You can learn more about the wine bar here and follow along with them on Instagram here! And you can learn more about Aida, their packaged foods company here and check out what they’re up to on Instagram here!