- Published on Monday, 13 August 2012 10:14
- Written by Kimbra Cutlip
It isn't easy building a true community café and coffee house—one where strangers feel welcomed and regulars feel as if they're among friends. But it seems to come naturally to Joe Valentino, owner of Kahve Café and Catering in Edgewater.
He opened the coffee house café last June in Mitchell's Chance shopping center, and locals are steadily making it a favorite stop in a busy day. In fact, by April, just ten months after opening, Kahve Café beat every participating coffee house in the Annapolis area in a competition for customer loyalty.
Joe sites two factors that help him stand out among most other coffee shops: quality and community. "One of the reasons I like coffee shops is the culture that surrounds going to get a cup of coffee," says the affable 30-year-old with a perpetual smile. "A local café can be a place to go where you can be recognized. You feel like you're at home, and you're also out enjoying something—especially if you don't want to go to a bar."
Once inside the doors, everything at Kahve Café reflects that ideal. A comfy couch and chairs is a focal point along one wall. The contemporary color scheme contrasts shades of avocado and eggplant with rich, dark wooden tables and booths. Amid a stream of drop-in customers, a quirky line-up of regulars greets Joe like an old friend. A few of them don't even bother to order. Joe already knows what they want.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Ed Wright chatted with Joe as he prepared a Latte and the standard menu item that Ed likes (but with a twist): Egg and cheese bagel with turkey; no cheese, hold the yolks. "This guy has the best bagels around," says Ed, owner of an engineering company in Annapolis. According to Joe, they're made on site from scratch and they're boiled, the way bagels are supposed to be.
Joe says the ability to make everything on site is one of the benefits of running a café outside of the busy downtown Annapolis area. Although foot traffic is slower, so are costs, and he has the staff time to make everything from scratch. Busier cafés and chain stores buy pre-baked items or pre-mixed dough for on-sight baking. Joe, on the other hand makes as many things from scratch as he can. The breads are flavorful, the scones buttery inside and delicately crisp on the outside. The chocolate chip cookies taste as if they are made one small batch at a time because they are, and the specialty cheesecakes are dense and creamy. They all taste as if they were made in your own kitchen (by someone who knows how to bake, of course). On the coffee side, Kahve staff also makes all their syrups. The beans are fresh roasted at Chesapeake Coffee Roasters in Crofton.
"Around here, there is nothing like this," says a stout man with long gray hair who goes only by the name Kenai. He's a regular who says he comes at least four times a week. "This reminds me of the city cafés in D.C., New York, and Chicago," he says.
All of the regulars who come in that Wednesday echo the same sentiment. The food is high quality, made fresh daily, and Joe takes special care to make sure each customer is happy. That level of extra care and detail doesn't come quickly. Which means if you're ordering anything but coffee or a bakery item from behind the counter, don't expect it in drive-through time. For those who keep coming back, it's well worth the wait.
Before taking the leap into ownership with partner and financier Ivon Paulin, Joe managed coffee shops off and on for about 12 years. He says the opportunity to open his own café came up rather quickly. "Ivon wanted to start something up," Joe says. "I enjoy managing, and I had the experience."
Originally from Frederick County, Joe went to St. Mary's College and then spent two years teaching high school math in Indiana before returning to Maryland.
"Owning a small business is challenging," he concedes, "There are a lot of hours in a day, especially when you're open seven days a week. But it's also very rewarding to learn to adapt, and see what else you can do with the product. You have to figure out little things that are going to set you apart from everyone else and to keep plugging away."
To that end, Joe has tried to elevate his menu in an area where the sub shops sell basic deli sandwiches, and chain restaurants are the norm. He says he is careful to offer an ample number of standard breakfast and lunch items alongside a few unique signature recipes that step outside of the box.
"We have a really good roast beef and cheddar sandwich with red onion and horseradish-mayonnaise that we make. It's a traditional, easily accessible sandwich," Joe says. "Then, I try to have some menu items that might not be so traditional."
Like his signature brie-and-apple panini, made with granny smith apples and honey on homemade French bread. Another specialty is the Mediterranean veggie wrap stuffed with hummus, organic baby romaine and spinach, kalamata olives, cucumber, tomato, feta and Greek vinaigrette. Then there are the dessert paninis. The concept alone is intriguing, but flavor combinations like white chocolate and raspberry, cherry and dark chocolate, or Nutella and banana should encourage even the most timid foodie to step outside their comfort zone.
"It's a mix of having something that you know people are going to like, and that keeps them coming back, and then having them be able to experience other things." Joe says.
Joe wants to introduce a Turkish coffee happy hour, wine tastings, and art from the local artist guild. He currently runs an open mic night on the second and fourth Friday of every month. Eventually, he hopes it will expand to include more events such as book club meetings, readings, and discussion groups.
His dream for the café would be for it to become a social hub reminiscent of the earliest coffee houses in Istanbul. There, people have been gathering in café's to catch up on local news and debate the issue of the day for more than 500 years. The tradition is a little newer in Edgewater, but according to Joe, he's willing to work hard to make it happen.
"If you have a vision, you just keep working toward it."