Leon Unglik stands proudly outside his new business
Credit: Victoria Davies
At age 30, Leon Unglik moved from Melbourne to New York to take a position with a law firm and explore lifein the US. A year later, he left his legal career to enter the restaurant industry and eventually opened his own coffee shop on Lexington Avenue in 2013. With a distinctive Australian character, the café Little Collins, opened in 2013, has proved itself popular with both New Yorkers and Aussies alike – a merging of cultures that Unglik himself embodies. New York has given Unglik the independence and autonomy that was greatly missing from his old suburban life in Australia. He not only set up his own successful business but also also married an old friend from high school and became a dad. Despite this success, the parochial quiet of Australia has lured the young family back so that their son can grow up within their family community. Unglik, however, is confident that he’ll return to New York someday.
Q. What sparked your desire to relocate to New York?
A. My brother actually moved here in 1999. He’s a doctor by profession but he’s also a pretty serious bass guitarist and he came here to study for a year; the music scene was a big draw. It was around then that I came to visit aged 21 and realised that I had to live over here at some point. It was the energy, the unpredictability – the fact that you never know what’s going to happen on any given day. Just a deep, deep change from what my lifestyle was back in Australia.
Q. What finally pushed you to move abroad as a lawyer?
A. I moved here in January 2008. I was a little disillusioned with work and felt like it was a little bit stale. It was actually just before the global financial crisis. There was a bit of a bubble and all of a sudden, for the first time in a long time, New York firms were readily employing Australians to move over. So I took some interviews, was offered a job, and thought ‘I have to do this!’
Q. How long did it take you to feel comfortable in your new life?
A. I had this problem for the first two years where it never felt like home; it just didn’t feel like real life. It takes a long time here just to set everything up: bank accounts, social security numbers, health insurance; navigating all these things is really difficult. All you want to do is get settled but it can feel like the city is working against you.
Q. What about making friends and establishing a social life?
A. I think it’s harder to get close to people here and maybe that’s a New York thing. It’s so transient that people don’t really want to invest; they know they’re moving on soon so they don’t want to set down roots. But it’s interesting, now when I’m flying back from Melbourne, when I see the skyline, it feels like I’m coming home. It took a long time to feel that.
Q. What was the biggest adjustment for you, coming from a suburb of Melbourne?
A. The constant noise. You only realize when you leave the city that even when you think it’s quiet, there’s still a hum. We are constantly exposed to noise pollution here and that does something to your stress levels, so that’s something that took getting used to.
Q. Are there still aspects of New York life that you find strange and how do they compare to Australia?
A. The service culture is just very foreign to me. Just the idea that tipping is an expectation, that it’s not earned – the whole concept of gratuity being compulsory is really strange. Back home we do service very differently. At Little Collins we try to be more customer-centric than the traditional coffee shop. We have set up a coffee bar which lends itself to interactions between customers and servers while drinks are being prepared, much like a traditional bar. We do not have condiment stations which require customers to finish the preparation of their drinks, rather customers are asked how they take their drinks and they are prepared for them accordingly. It’s the small things that help personalize the service.
Q. What convinced you to transition from law into coffee?
A. I’ve always been very into coffee and café culture in general. The very first thing that I bought when I moved here, before I had even secured an apartment, was a commercial coffee machine. I was definitely a home enthusiast and I felt like there was a little bit of a hole in the market. We have a coffee culture that’s very strong in Melbourne.
Q. You left your law firm in 2009 but didn’t open up Little Collins until 2013. What were you doing in between these two jobs?
A. Three months after accepting a voluntary sabbatical at work, I started working as a barista. Before I actually raised funds to open the café, I wanted to know I could do it every day of my life. I wanted to make sure that I could do absolutely every role in the café, in case someone didn’t turn up one day. Then I went to manage some other Australians at a café in Williamsburg called Toby’s Estate. I resigned at the end of 2012, to devote time to finding my own space, and finally opened this place in July 2013.
Q. After living here for seven years, what has drawn you back to Melbourne?
A. My wife and I had a child three years ago and we wanted our son to experience being close to the family. Also those first few years with a child we found very challenging. It’s a very different city when all of a sudden you can’t be really impulsive, when you’re thinking about another person 24/7.
Q. What does the future look like for you and Little Collins? Do you think you’ll return to New York?
A. Absolutely. We’re thinking about expanding the café, so it’s very likely that at some point I’ll have to move back over here for a stint.Currently I check in with my managers one-to-two times a day from Melbourne and make sure that I keep abreast of everything that is happening in store, but a new opening would require my presence. That’s something that I’d love to do; I know I’ll miss New York.
Edited for content and length.
Written on 10/07/15 for an NYU class assignment.
Also published on nyumag.com