land to sea Diversifies NYC’s Cafe Culture + Creative Community

Created by people of color to uplift people of color, this Williamsburg space is more than a typical coffee shop

Another coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is par for the course, but that’s why the neighborhood’s latest addition, land to sea, stands out even more. Opening its doors in October, Emily Shum and Eva Zhou’s land to sea fosters a creative and inclusive community, hosting food pop-ups, art exhibits and classes, especially designed to uplift artists of color. More than a cafe, this versatile venue reimagines the humble coffee shop’s role in supporting the community.

Image by Jas Leon (@jasleon), courtesy of land to sea

“I lived over here my whole life. There’s no space. There’s no tangible space, especially for people of color, to show their work and get eyes on it,” co-founder Shum, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, tells us. That lack of space drove her and co-founder Zhou (who grew up in various midwestern and southern states but shares a similar experience) to build the hub they longed for—with particular attention paid to showcasing art in order to rectify the exclusionary industry.

The idea of building a space naturally molded itself into a coffee shop, not only because it speaks to the Asian American culture of congregating over food and drink, but also because it allowed the founders to walk in the footsteps of their parents, immigrants who moved from China to the US to work in the service industry as small business-owners as well. To that end, every detail of the shop—from its name to its food options, even its bathroom decor—pays homage to their heritage and the journey of immigrants. “The name, land to sea, inherently is a tribute to our background. The name is likened to the miles our parents and grandparents traveled to bring us here,” Shum explains. This journey is continued on the store’s shelves, where Shum and Zhou curate goods from other small businesses, like Banana Magazine or The Qi teas.

Image by Jas Leon (@jasleon), courtesy of land to sea

Upon entering land to sea, one is met with the first half of the shop’s exposed brick and minimalist layout that’s elevated yet unpretentious, cozy without being overdone. A closer look, however, reveals how heritage imbues every nook and cranny of the space. Sit down and an encased glass-topped desk showcases a collage made of Chinese newspaper clippings, while overhead a green grid runs throughout the ceiling, whose color was inspired by Hong Kong trams and the symbolization of prosperity lifted from green mahjong tiles. Then, a little deeper, a nook, nestled in the corner, alludes to Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and features more collages, red wood and a velvet curtain that amount to an intimate, romantic setting.

Courtesy of land to sea

While the front half of the shop evokes a daytime, home-like atmosphere, the back half of the shop is a dark counterpart that the founders dub Temple Street, after the famous market in Hong Kong. In fact, the whole back space, as Shum tells us, “was designed after the night markets of China, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.” The cement walls (that Zhou and Shum painted themselves) mixed with glowing neon signs feel transformative when walking from one room to the next

Courtesy of land to sea

“We really wanted to create an immersive experience and we did that with this tunnel here,” Shum continues, under the doorway. “When it’s dark out and you’re looking from outside in, it’s kind of like an optical illusion because in here are all the colors which the mirror offsets,” Zhou adds.

This otherworldly dimension—crafted by Hong Kong and Brooklyn-based designer Jeremy Son—is also functional, as the space is used to host art shows, DJs and other events. “We thought long and hard about what we wanted the space to physically look like because it would be for artists to put their work in and interact with,” Shum says. Already, they’ve had creatives play with lighting, projectors and other aspects of the room to enhance workshops and exhibits.

Courtesy of land to sea

When it comes to their food and drink menu, their culture is, of course, their main theme. “Every day, we try to offer a different assortment of pastries,” says Zhou. “We have three to four baked goods, which is the egg tart, the cheese twist and mini bo lo baos (pineapple buns) and the rest we sort based on the day. On weekends, we add an additional specialty like a Chinese donut,” she continues.

Courtesy of land to sea

As well as the baked goods (sourced from local Chinatown bakeries), their beverages (with beans sourced from Brooklyn’s Sey Coffee) include seasonally rotating lattes and teas. “We have our core coffee menu, our core tea menu and then seasonal lattes. We’re doing a winter special right now: the five spice mocha (which features cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, cloves and Sichuan peppercorn). We’re also doing a rotational program for seasonal Chinese teas. Right now it’s the Phoenix Oolong… We do a lot of experimenting,” laughs Zhou.

Courtesy of land to sea

It’s precisely this unconventional thinking that led to expanding and reimagining the community-oriented role of coffee shops, which—as land to sea’s consistently sold-out events indicate—is highly appreciated. “We have a lot of regulars now. We know their names, their dog’s names, their orders,” Zhuo tells us, touched at the city’s warm response to their opening. While the pair is currently setting up for their latest event—a live jazz performance by Cy Leo and other artists on 10 December—they are already programming well into the next year with plans to keep elevating and evolving on the way.

Hero image by Kelly Pau