French Connection On the Lower East Side

Laure Travers’ Clandestino Bar Shapes a New York Community

Editors: Mark Uzunian, Irene Huhulea
Interview: Saskia Ketz, Kimi Mongello
Photography & Video: Kisha Bari

The connotations that words can invoke aren’t lost on Laure Travers. “Clandestino means clandestine but it also makes you think of a place where people gather and talk,” she says in her charming French lilt over drinks at her bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I also wanted a foreign word since I’m an immigrant.”

Enchanted with New York’s tight-knit community, Travers moved from the suburbs of Paris to New York City when she was 22. “I felt it would be so easy for me to fit in with the other immigrants. I thought if I wanted to make it my home, I’d feel more [at] home,” she explained. In 2006, Travers opened Clandestino, an unassuming neighbor-hood bar with good drinks and better conversation located at 35 Canal Street.

When we met Travers on a sunny June afternoon, she was sitting on Clandestino’s petite patio beckoning us in as if we were old friends.

AWT: What was it like growing up in Paris?

Laure Travers: I actually grew up all over France when I was very little because my father was in sales, and the nature of his job would have him move around constantly to different sales territories. We started living in the suburbs when I was eight. When I was 15, my parents sent me to high school in Paris, which was when I really discovered Paris. I would commute every day. That’s how I got exposed to the arts.

AWT: Is that why you moved to New York? To continue getting exposed to new experiences?

LT: I moved here because I really liked New York. I came here for the first time at the end of the first year of high school. We went on a family trip to the US—my parents, my siblings and friends of my parents. It was the first time I was out of Europe. I came back from that trip in love with the USA. Every year after that I would come as an au pair to California, to DC or to New York. Of the three I preferred New York, so that’s why I decided to move. I felt it would be easier for me to fit in with the other immigrants in New York City.

AWT: The New York Times article that was published earlier this year about Clandestino had a nice headline: “No Pretenses, But Lots of Personality.” How do you feel about the community your bar attracts?

LT: Well, the community inside the bar I feel extremely good about—it’s even more than what I had imagined. I wanted to create a space where people would have a good time, but I didn’t think it would turn into actually a little community where so many people meet each other. That’s really nice, that’s a good feeling.

“Who do I connect with the most? Really, it’s people who are the nicest. It’s simple, it seems silly, but there are some people who are truly nice.”

AWT: You were only 22 when you moved so I don’t know how much information you gathered about the community in France, but how would you compare the two communities?

LT: I think New Yorkers are more community-oriented than the French. It’s difficult to answer that question, because I don’t really live in France, so I am just talking of high school memories. The fabric of New York is different, I think. Especially in this neighborhood where a lot of people have been here for a really long time. People talk more in America than in France. The French tend to be a little more closed, inside themselves. I’ve learned in America to be much more open to neighbors.

AWT: How did you come up with the idea of owning and running a bar?

LT: I wanted to have my own little business, a business that is not just about money, [but] something that, you know, would mean something to me. I thought about a number of things. I thought about selling rugs, selling books. A bar was appealing in many ways. So I interviewed a lot of people from the rug and the bar business to see what it’s like. Then I said, “Yeah, I probably can run a bar successfully and be happy and fulfilled.”

AWT: How did you make this all happen? How did you make a plan eight years ago when there weren’t a lot of bars in this area?

LT: I lived here for several years before I opened Clandestino when there were a few bars but not like it is today. I wanted a neighborhood bar and I wanted it to be here. I did an MBA when I was young, so I knew a little bit about having to have more money coming in than going out. [Laughs.] I did a very thorough business plan, very thorough, and then I designed the bar pretty much to my taste hoping I’m not the only one who likes that kind of place. I designed it, I picked the bartenders I would like to see as bartenders and then I really crossed my fingers that we would get the clientele.

AWT: How long did it take to really get established?

LT: It took almost nine months. I knew that it would take a little while because we were not going to do too much promotion. We opened in January of 2006 and in September I started to worry. I was wondering if we needed to change something. And in October it picked up. Exactly when I started saying, “Look, you’re a business woman. You cannot carry on losing money every month, you need to do something.” I was very lucky. Exactly at that moment it worked and we all felt it. We had reached the moment where we had enough people. We started to really look well and also to look like what we wanted to look like.

AWT: I know you moved here relatively early in life, but do you have thoughts on comparing French and American women in business?

LT: There are a number of things. My parents didn’t have their own business, but my mother wanted to open her own business and she came from a family where people had their own businesses. That was encouraging to me. It took a little bit of pushing myself, but why not. When you get over your fears you ask yourself, “Why couldn’t you succeed and be just as good as a man?” [Laughs.]

AWT: Who do you connect with the most as for your patrons, and what kind of stories do they tell you?

LT: Who do I connect with the most? Really, it’s people who are the nicest. It’s simple. It seems silly, but there are some people who are truly nice. There are people where I feel like we are working on them. They are a little shy or a little more awkward socially. I think we’ve had many successes. We make them feel that they’re loved here. People become friends to me, to the bartenders as well and to each other. So when there is a crisis, whether people lost their jobs, or they lost one parent or somebody died or when there’s a breakup, it’s not unusual that they come here. They know that people here wrap their arms around them. This is one of the first places, if not the first place, that they go to when something happens.

With a long-standing immigrant history, New York’s Lower East Side is home to thousands of people like Laure who have found a place for themselves within the neighborhood’s diverse community. By opening Clandestino, Travers has found a way to share her story with others, and to create a space that truly bridges cultural, generational and gender divides.

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