For Mike Nicholas, it was never about trying to “make it out” of Flatbush.
Instead, he said he and his friends are working on the model of “making it in” the neighborhood.
Nicholas and his wife Nicole recently opened the plant-based restaurant, bar and concept store Aunts Et Uncles at 1407 Nostrand Avenue, in the heart of Little Caribbean.
There was a point of time in the late 80s to early 90s where Flatbush was the worst place to live or open a business in Brooklyn because of the violence and economic issues, Nicholas said.
“People would make decisions based on their circumstances. When your back is to the wall there’s only so many options you have,” he said.
But education and growth of local resources has changed that.
“Now, we know we have a beautiful neighborhood, tree-lined blocks, close to the city, close to the park, beautiful architecture, historical buildings and so much culture embedded in the neighborhood. We have to make it here.”
The aesthetics of a hug
Aunts Et Uncles is one of the rare spots that opened mid-pandemic, and managed to stay open.
The project is a fusion of Mike’s art and design background, and Nicole’s background in hospitality, writing and doula training.
As well as serving artfully-plated plant-based burgers, tacos and Puerto Rican mofongo, Aunts Et Uncles sells home goods, stationary, prints, magazines and “books on our reading list.”
The idea came in part from not having anything else like it in the neighborhood. Nicholas points to having to go to Williamsburg for plant-based food, Bryant Park for books and SoHo for the aesthetic. He and Nicole wanted to bring all of that to Flatbush.
“People have come in and said the space literally hugs them. What we tell them is, ‘We deserve it. You deserve it, to have a space like this in our neighborhood.”
It wasn’t an easy path to opening. The couple were on track, when Nicole’s mom fell ill with cancer in Canada. Then the pandemic struck New York, and Nicole’s mom passed away. While Nicholas’ family wanted the pair to stay in Canada, they couldn’t do it.
“It’s not the New Yorker spirit to just leave things in the air, we had to come back and put boots to the ground and just do it.”
The shop opened the day after Nicole’s birthday in October 2020.
“It’s a story to tell the grandkids, that this came through the pandemic,” Nicholas said.
Keeping the talent at home
While Flatbush — a neighborhood of second generation immigrants — has been handicapped in the past by lack of access to capital and financial literacy, the community is now banding together to elevate one another, Nicholas said.
He was lucky to have learned from his father, an architect, and to have had the chance to travel. But the old narrative of Flatbush parents getting their kids an education so they can export their talents — and their dollars — elsewhere, is changing.
While Nicholas grew up in Flatbush, in walking distance of his elementary and high schools, it took him moving to Florida for college and spending seven years there to realize the magic was at home.
“Being around other people aspiring to get to the place I left was an eye opener,” he said. “I was able to draw love for it from a distance and appreciate it more when I returned.”
Now, the goal is to show Flatbush what can be done, and how to share as many resources as possible.
“This is our opportunity to rise in a new time and redefine this moment in our generation.”
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