It's hard to remember what life was like before digital influencers clogged up our feeds with their perfectly curated content. I know I'm not alone in picking places to check out solely based on where people I follow on Instagram have visited.
For the businesses that really care about making a big impression, it's about so much more than what you see on Instagram though. Trendy hot spots like Pietro Nolita, Cha Cha Matcha, and Chillhouse have not only carefully cultivated their Instagram-friendly aesthetic, but also they work hard toward making the aspirational environment you see online translate to real life. Here's how the experts make it happen.
The idea for Chillhouse came after founder and owner Cyndi Ramirez-Fulton noticed a void in approachable and affordable spas. She wanted to create an atmosphere where women could wind down and relax, similar to the spaces that men regularly retreat to, like barber shops. Almost a year after conceptualizing it, Chillhouse now serves as an IRL oasis where women (and men) can have manicures, massages, and matcha, too.
Ramirez-Fulton hired designer Jeff White to turn her little white box of a building on the Lower East Side into the sanctuary of her dreams. They stuck with a white color scheme to keep the look "gender-neutral," minimalist, and "clean on the eyes." Then, the marble countertops and wavy shelves were decked out with lush green plants accented by wood tones; the work of local artists was framed and hung on the walls. Like any modern-day entrepreneur, Ramirez-Fulton knows the power of a neon sign and has a gigantic head with the word "chill" written on its inside mounted by the front section of the shop.
Cha Cha Matcha also operates as a getaway from the busy streets of New York. Co-founders and -owners Matthew Morton and Conrad Sandelman wanted to create a "relaxing place with a great vibe" that served an assortment of high-quality matcha products "without having to be so serious." Sandelman said that they decided on the pink and green color scheme after realizing that most coffee shops opt for brown to stay in sync with the beans. Since matcha is green, it made the most sense to stick to that, while also incorporating a complementary color.
Morton was determined to avoid making their shop a "stale, dusty-looking place that makes you feel like you’re in New York." Instead, Cha Cha Matcha is a piece of tropical paradise in the heart of Nolita. The walls are decked out with vintage Cha Cha records and international film posters that Sandelman and Morton spent months searching for on the internet. For them, it's all about paying attention to the littlest details. Everything from the tabletops and the counters to the napkins, cup sleeves, and sugar packets are selected to be on-brand. There's even a plant wall in the back with a bright pink neon sign that says "matcha gracias." (Puns are a very desirable component to a good 'gram.)
"I think just going that extra step for everything, is what separates us from everybody else," said Morton. "We weigh every single drink, the amount of matcha that's in every drink is the exact same, the amount of milk, the amount of ice, the temperature of the milk... It’s that attention to detail that has to flow through everything."
Pietro Nolita directly drew inspiration from co-owner Pietro Quaglia's mother and her home in Portofino, a pastel-hued village located on the Italian Riviera. Quaglia refers to his healthy Italian restaurant as a "jewelry box" in the middle of a concrete jungle, a casual place where people can gather for good food and company, that also happens to be 100 percent pink from the inside out. Not only is the bathroom an extension of the pastel pink restaurant, but everything from the cups to the napkins follows the color code. Customers are completely "surrounded by cuteness," and Quaglia wouldn't have it any other way.
Quaglia's vision for the decor was inspired by the newly trendy Memphis Design Movement, a colorful, almost cartoon-y aesthetic born in Milan in 1981. Quaglia hired an interior designer to find all of the pieces, but everything fell into place exactly how Quaglia imagined it would. Additionally, he decided to leave the graffiti outside of the restaurant intact because he thinks that it's part of the charm.
As a straight man, Quaglia felt compelled to go all in and sell a "pink as fuck" message. He finds it frustrating that the men that stumble into the restaurant seem insecure about being in the environment, but he's not particularly concerned about them.
"This place has a happy face in the front, and that’s why I did this," he added. "The only thing I want is to bring a smile to people enjoying the food, a nice bowl of pasta with good high-end, quality ingredients."
All of these business owners agree that it's important to have a presence on social media. In order to do so effectively, the owners are the only ones that maintain control over their brand's accounts. Sandelman and Morton are extremely hands-on and do everything from capturing the content to posting it on Cha Cha Matcha's social media accounts. As Morton puts it, "Who else could tell that story better than the people actually involved in the business?"
He added, "It’s not about having the best photographer take your photo or having the most crisp, perfect videos because those don’t feel real. We take everything here [in] real time, we like to go live from the store, and it’s the best way to be able to reach your customer and also find new customers as well."
Over the next few months, Cha Cha Matcha will continue to expand into other sections of New York like Greenwich Village, Tribeca, the Financial District and beyond. However, Morton and Sandelman still plan on being involved in every aspect of the business. "We would never let anybody touch our store ever because then it would become something that was manufactured by somebody else," said Morton.
While the list of services offered at Chillhouse will continue to expand, Ramirez-Fulton envisions her business evolving into an all-encompassing lifestyle brand that inspires people rather than just pushes a product.
For Quaglia, the most important thing is that his customers feel like they can feel at home and carefree within Pietro Nolita. "To tell you the truth, I just painted the wall pink. I didn’t invent the wheel," said Quaglia. "I just went for a color that reminded me of home and a color that exudes happiness and joy. That’s what it does to me."