David Steingard was just 16 when he enrolled at BMCC, and had grown up in the neighborhood.
“I played stick ball on these streets when I was a kid,” he says. “The park in front of the college used to be a sand pit, and there were sculptures there, including a big red fire engine we used to climb on.”
His father, Barry Steingard, opened the well-known Tribeca restaurant, The Cupping Room Café, in 1977, and “I used to take naps on the coffee bags,” says Steingard. “My sister and I would stop by on our way to school and get a nice sour cream muffin and hot chocolate.”
After transferring to Baruch College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in advertising and marketing, he graduated from New York Law School, and was working as a criminal prosecutor in Brooklyn when family friend and actor Hugh Jackman—who plays Wolverine in the hit movie, X-Men—proposed that the three men; Jackman, Steingard and his father, open a coffee shop together in Tribeca, with proceeds going to help sustainable farmers, worldwide.
Entrepreneurism—"the last pioneering spirit"
Laughing Man Coffee & Tea is part of Laughing Man Worldwide. “We’re basically designed around the Paul Newman model,” says Steingard. “All the profits go to charity, and we make that possible by creating really good consumer goods.”
Steingard and the Laughing Man team have been inspired by Newman’s book, co-written with A.E. Hotchner, Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good:The Madcap Business Adventure by the Truly Oddest Couple.
“I think the entrepreneurial spirit is this country’s last pioneering spirit,” says Steingard. “Our model is, we want to bring in other companies under our umbrella, but they have to subscribe to our philanthropic values.”
Hugh Jackman founded Laugh Man Worldwide after he and his wife, the actress Deborra-Lee Furness, visited Ethiopia with World Vision International, and Jackman met a coffee farmer, Dukale, who “changed the way I looked at the world,” he says. “As Dukale and I planted coffee trees together, I began to see the potential for one man’s hard work to transform an entire community.”
“Dukale, we look at as our muse,” says Steingard, and adds that the next steps for Laughing Man will be to provide education for farmers on how to upgrade the processing of their coffee crop.
“Farmers in very small towns take their beans to a ‘washing station’; five local villages might do that and their beans are all mixed together,” he explains. “Then, the coffee is taken to an even larger pool in the production chain. Instead, we’d like to see them go smaller, and not have so many middle-men involved.”
Education—the silver bullet
Profits from Laughing Man Coffee & Tea also support local initiatives, including the Harlem Village Academies, three acclaimed charter schools in New York City.
These schools, founded by former Time Warner Executive Deborah Kenny, are widely recognized as a leader in the education reform movement. Students enter below grade-level, and yet, after a few years, make remarkable gains.
“Education is the key to changing people’s lives—we feel that’s the ‘silver bullet’,” says Steingard. “We support innovative, educational pursuits that address character; respect and honesty, as well as scholastic growth.”
A student of business, law—and coffee
“I love coffee, absolutely,” says Steingard. “I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on coffee, but I claim to be a student of it.”
Laughing Man offers a proprietary blend, “184 Duane,” (named after the shop’s Tribeca address), which the team created by experimenting with combinations of beans.
They also offer “Dukale’s Dream,” another proprietary blend, as well as single-origin coffees from Indonesia, Panama, Papua Guinea and other countries, all of which “come from a particular farm, a particular season, and have a particular taste,” Steingard says.
Has it helped having a movie star as a business partner? “Of course,” says Steingard. “He’s our spokesperson, and Hugh is known all around the world, for his genuine philanthropic work.”
Still, he says, “Whether you have connections or not, nothing replaces hard work. If you drink coffee, tea or hot chocolate, we make a good product, and that’s something we’re proud of.”