How a Cambodian Refugee Started a Bushwick Coffee Empire and Communal Hub

Abigail Koffler

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Underneath the rumbling of the JMZ train sits Little Skips. The coffee shop, turned neighborhood hangout and events space, opened in February 2010. Owner Linda Thach had moved to Bushwick two years before and hoped to be an actress. She waited tables at a sushi restaurant, attended the New School for Film, and worked towards her dream, which did not involve coffee.

Then something changed. Her mom passed away and left her some money. Thach “didn’t want to do something unless it would make her proud.” Thach and her family escaped the end of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia by walking from “Cambodia to Thailand to find asylum in the refugee camp. Our family lived in refugee camps in Thailand and then the Philippines for a couple years before immigrating to the US after finding a sponsor (this was a very traumatic time as we were always hungry since there was little food for all the refugees and barely enough shelter for everyone so most slept on dirt ground).”

Linda Thach in front of Little Skips cafe.

They settled in Florida, because the warm weather reminded them of Cambodia. Her father worked as a dishwasher to put himself through vocational school and started a business. The family’s defensive manufacturing company in St. Petersburg, Fl taught Thach about hard work, and she learned “that, in your own business, all your decisions directly affect the success of your business as well as your own success.”

In Bushwick at the time, Thach and her creative friends had a shortage of hangout spots that weren’t bars. They frequented Goodbye Blue Monday, “a ramshackle space with doll heads on the wall,” and Thach saw an opening for something else.

As she toured spaces, one jumped out at her. When she entered the space of the formerly Ashley’s Carburetors (the original sign still hangs over the bar) Thach felt it right away, “The space has this energy, I saw the bar the way it was, with me working behind it.” She didn’t even read the lease before committing in December 2009. The cafe opened the following February and took off.

When this lease expires at the end of 2019, the rent will double. Currently, the neighborhood institution faces an uncertain future.

Little Skips was named for “a theology of taking little skips through life,” that described Thach’s group of friends. From the beginning, Thach focused on specialty coffee, a healthy all-day menu, and a welcoming environment. Bushwick locals frequently set up meetings there and even started companies. Back in the day, Bushwick Daily founder Katarina Hybenova told Thach of her idea for the website at Little Skips and launched it at one of its tables.  

By 2014, lines were out the door at Little Skips and Thach hated seeing regulars wait to get their daily coffee fix. She wanted a second location close to the first, but had no way to fund it. She approached a regular, “the oldest customer I knew, he was very well dressed and I said, ‘Hey do you have money I can borrow?’ I had no fear back then.” He proposed a partnership, rather than a loan, and Thach started looking for a home for Baby Skips.

Little Mo’s Bo Luc Lac-Vietnamese Beef Cubes 

In an unlikely coincidence, a different partner had approached Thach looking to start a Vietnamese restaurant. Then Thach saw a space, too big for a restaurant and too big for a coffee shop, but the perfect size for a hybrid. She pitched the idea to her partners, and once the landlord gave them a good deal, the space became Little MO and Baby Skips, two connected businesses.

The build-out was intense—Thach built the wall dividing the space and worked on the perfect layout, the right equipment, and the best use of the space.

She asked fellow business owners, including Mark Trzupek of Forrest Point, to visit her construction site and advise her. In her recollection, “I almost died that year, it was the most challenging year of my life.” Her best friends took over managing the day-to-day at Little Skips.

Today, Thach oversees 40 employees and treats them like humans. She’s open about mental health struggles and encourages her managers to do the same, admitting that “sometimes it ends with someone having a good cry in my office,” and proactive about public health, holding Narcan trainings for her employees so they’re prepared to intervene. 

She’s also learned the importance of taking care of herself, practicing yoga (Bushwick Daily interviewed her before a month-long yoga teacher training in Ecuador), and setting up a management structure that isn’t wholly reliant on her.

Thach and the Little Skips team.

Bushwick is not the place it was in 2009 when she signed the Little Skips lease. At the time, Bushwick “was the only place I could afford to open a business, and live.” Now it’s gotten more developed and more expensive, a trend she sees in many cities, from Detroit to her new hometown of St. Petersburg, Fl.

What’s next for Little Skips? She hopes to open a Cambodian restaurant with a partner who has a pop-up series. She believes in Chinchakriya Un’s vision, and “would like to give you [her] the opportunity that I had.” Thach has a hunch that kreung, the spice paste that’s the base of Cambodian cuisine, would be popular in Bushwick. Thach goes back to Cambodia every year and believes she was given another chance at life in a “free” country. Eventually Thach hopes to open a cafe or restaurant in Cambodia, “where we employ underprivileged kids to train and work in the business, giving them tangible skills and experience to find future work.”  

Money is never the number one driver. If money ever becomes number one, I’ll have to shut down because I’ll have lost my soul.

Baby Skips Kitchen: Vegan Avocado Toast

Baby Skips is doubling down on local produce and will offer a CSA this year, as well as a rotating seasonal vegetarian menu, under the name Baby Skips Kitchen. All of Thach’s businesses donate leftover food and compost with BK Rot. She buys from The Riseboro Farmers Market in Maria Hernandez Park and is working on a series of dinners with suppliers, teaching the basics of seasonal cooking. The kitchen is also working on reducing waste and eliminating saran wrap and plastics.

Thach has high standards for herself as the core of her business, “It’s more than physical, it’s so mental, you have to be strong and on point or else it falls apart, and I can’t have that.” She invests in self-care for this reason and wants the same for her staff, “I’m in a human business, of taking care of humans, not so much selling coffee and sandwiches.”

If you ask Thach, the one thing Bushwick has too many of is bars, “I don’t want to just get people drunk, I want to nourish them.” As she plans the next phase of her business, she reiterates that “money is never the number one driver. If money ever becomes number one, I’ll have to shut down because I’ll have lost my soul.”

Bushwick locations:

Little Skips (the OG) 941 Willoughby Ave

Baby Skips and Little Mo at 1158 Myrtle Ave

Little Skips East 1643 Broadway

Baby Skips Kitchen 1158 Myrtle Ave

Manhattan locations:

Little Skips at Three Jewels 5 East 3rd Street

Follow Little Skips on Instagram for event info and more.

If you are interested in the future of Little Skips please email [email protected].

All images courtesy of Little Skips.

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