As a freelance writer, relocating to a new city without a regular coffee shop can feel oppressively bleak, especially in the face of a Midwestern winter. Understanding the gravity of my situation, I made finding a cozy place to write my priority when I relocated to Wisconsin from New York last fall. Moving from a place where everything is “the best” and can only be found across town, I wondered if I would ever find a favorite cafe. New York rhetoric aside, I was desperate, so while staying in Waukesha and apartment searching downtown, I often found myself coffee shop surfing off the I-94 strip.
Venturing out to find a coffee shop is not unlike blind dating: with so many variables, most attempts prove fruitless. Some coffee shops are too loud, too expensive, or too busy; some are too stale, or the regulars just a little too creepy. Many coffee shop owners do not appreciate the perched laptop worker that sucks down refills, sapping the power and Internet for hours. And they can be mean. So when seeking out a favorite coffee shop, it is important to feel welcome.
Within a few weeks, I happened to stumble into the Café de Arts in Waukesha, a coffee shop and roaster located a few blocks from Main Street. Nestled on the first floor of a building that resembles your grandma’s house, the Café de Arts opens up like a family kitchen. It hosts guests in small rooms painted in bright reds, yellows and oranges and seats them at various small table sets. There is also a collection of leather couches and a large flat screen television. The art on the walls-mostly ceramic and papier-mâché suns-mirrors the moods and unwavering glow of its owners, Ayhan and Gultan Munzer.
Ayhan and Gultan are the kind of people that arrive ceremoniously at five in the morning and do not leave until after ten at night. Their disposition is always cheery, regardless of the weather. They know customers by first name and say things like, “Everyday is a good day,” when you ask how they are. On the weekends, they are joined by their son, Justin, a gregarious first-grader, who buzzes from table to table, entertaining customers with his elaborate stories and irresistible laughter.
Within only a few visits, it became clear that regulars return to the Café de Arts, not only for the quality of coffee and dishes, but for the light-hearted, compassionate service that is personal, affectionate, and unmatched. I found myself going out of my way to visit the Café de Arts, where I was caught distracted and smiling, and it seemed, I was never the only one seduced by the family’s kindness and enthusiasm.
I thought that this experience was unrivaled, until I happened upon Hakan Hare at Le Cakery, a bistro, cake shop and restaurant in Elm Grove. Hakan delivers with his cakes and delectable menu, a jovial laugh and even a friendly jab. I have watched him surprise customers with a cup of coffee before they have time to order. He takes time to know the personalities of each customer and always encourages conversation. Hakan recognizes and knows his regulars by name, and doesn’t hesitate to sit down to chat with the families, book clubs, stay-at-home moms, and professionals who have integrated the coffee shop into a daily routine.
After frequenting Le Cakery and the Café de Arts over the fall and winter months, I observed, in both, an alluring warmth that has attracted loyal customers and enthusiasts throughout the area. Making a point to visit each café weekly, I learned quickly, that these two Turkish entrepreneurs are friends with a history in the restaurant business and a friendship that has endured over 15 years.
Ayhan and Hakan met in 1991 working on staff at a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey. Both attended school for restaurant and hotel management and eventually pursued opportunities abroad. Hakan left the hotel to work for a cruise ship in 1996 and Ayhan chased coffee shop ventures both in Turkey and New Hampshire, before settling in Wisconsin. The two had been out of contact for over 10 years when they ran into each other working at Il Mito in Wauwatosa.
“He said, ‘I know you from somewhere! How do I know you?’” Ayhan told me. Since the respective shops opened in 2008, Hakan and Ayhan have continued to share business tips and banter on Facebook.
In creating Café de Arts, Ayhan focused on coffee and roasting, even investing thousands of dollars to transport his specialty roaster from Turkey. Hakan bought Le Cakery and has successfully been catering, creating specialty cakes and desserts, and delivering elegant lunch and dinner menus with the assistance of his head chef and partner, Maura Sullivan.
While Hakan and Ayhan pursued business ventures independently, both remain committed to a seamless and remarkably similar style of service. I was curious how two individuals with divergent paths would land in the same place, so far from Istanbul where they met. Feeling removed from New York and the thriving worldliness of a city, I also wondered what brought them to Waukesha and Elm Grove, respectively. Ayhan liked the Waukesha community for its simplicity and ease, education, and the opportunities for his family. As a seasoned businessman, Ayhan also saw the potential of opening a small business in Wisconsin:
“When you have experience, you can see potential. You watch and you learn and you see what others don’t see.” Aware of the diverse demographics and underground arts scene of Waukesha, it was Ayhan’s vision to build a social, welcoming atmosphere where a diverse clientele could come to play games, talk, hold a business meeting, or read a book.
While Hakan is not a family man “yet,” he noted other kinds of opportunities and potential for opening a business in Wisconsin:
“Because of the climate, Milwaukee is hungry for either East Coast or West Coast style food- either L.A. or New York. They are always willing to try something new or different. They don’t mind Midwest, they just want the same feeling and the same quality.” He also appreciated the patronage to local businesses prominent in areas like Elm Grove.
Hakan explained another advantage for entrepreneurs: “Everyone says that Milwaukee is conservative, and it is…however, once you get their trust, it is really easy to work with the people. Once you have them, they are very loyal.” Hakan still has followers from his time at Il Mito.
Ms. Sullivan told me that, in her experience, the Turkish bring a warmth, sincerity and passion to their work in the service industry. Hakan and Ayhan both explained that, traditionally, the coffee shop or teahouse is a place to gather and socialize. In creating each establishment, the personal experience of each customer was priority. As Hakan told me, “In our culture, in Turkish culture, the coffee shop or the tea house is about socialization. We want to create an event and a place where you can socialize with friends. And while you are talking, why not have something to drink or something to eat?”
At the Café de Arts and Le Cakery, the owners’ attention to detail and personalized service is quite unique. Recently Hakan has started offering a four-course “Wine Dinner” once a month. In addition to pairing courses with wines, he has taken it upon himself to pair strangers at the intimately arranged dinner tables. He believes that by knowing his customers well, he can predict who should sit together (much like seating the in-laws at a wedding). While Hakan boasts a 90% accuracy rate, he still worries about making a mistake. Recently, he placed several women at a table and worried that they may not get along. Fortunately, his intuition was right and the women chatted so late that they inspired a new “Ladies Night Wine Dinner.”
I asked Ayhan if he ever felt they were in competition, and he answered, “No, no. He does cakes, and I do coffee.” Then I sensed some friendly rivalry: “Hakan always tells me that business is slow, but he is a liar,” Ayhan shakes his head and laughs, “Hakan says, ‘Business is slow, send customers over,’ and I say, ‘They will pass 10 gas stations where they buy the same coffee as yours. Why should I send them?’” He laughs again.
I wanted to ask both Ayhan and Hakan about the economy and whether their nascent businesses had been affected by the storm. I should not have been surprised when Ayhan responded this way: “Well, yes we feel it, but that is why we offer ninety-nine cent coffees. We know that it is hard for people and we want to help them while helping our business too. Everyone is our friends. In here, we want everyone happy. Happy come, happy leave,” he explains, as though a business model should be this simple.
It seems to be working. Within five months after opening, the Café de Arts received 4th place in the 2009 A-list competition for Best Coffee Shop hosted by WISN. Hakan and Ayhan also plan to open additional shops, so long as they can preserve the same level of quality, service and experience.
Finding these quaint cafes certainly made the winter months seem a little warmer and made the transition from New York a little easier too. I was so charmed by both Café de Arts and Le Cakery, I told my mother who lives downtown that if she were ever in the suburbs, she should give these Turkish coffee shops a try. Before I could finish, her eyes lit up and she asked excitedly,
“Oh, you know Hakan?” Apparently, the Turkish cheer is already sweeping.
Le Cakery is located at 13320 Watertown Plank Road, Elm Grove. For more information, call (262) 789-0500 or go to www.lecakery.com
Café de Arts is located at 136 East Saint Paul Avenue in Waukesha. For more information call (262) 446-1856 or go to www.cafedearts.com
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