Editor's note: 83 Degrees first published this story in June 2010.
Regular diner Christina Mullen makes Cafe Hey a routine lunch stop for
her family. She appreciates the coffeehouse's use of space, food and
environment, and believes the Franklin Street neighborhood is starving
for more such resurgence in downtown living.
"There are all these
people wanting to gather and wanting to be part of this cool
underground community,'' says Mullen. "But until Cafe Hey came into
existence, there weren't many places to hang out.''Cafe Hey
events -- poster art openings and open mic nights -- are what initially
attracted the Mullens. "The poster art was amazing. It spilled out onto
the sidewalk and everyone had a great night," explains Mullen. Those
nights are probably going to be extended soon, once the cafe receives
its license to sell wine and beer.
"At heart we're a coffee
shop. But it's taken on a life of its own," says Co-Owner Cheong Choi.
The cafe quickly went from offering two sandwiches to branching out
their menu into 15 different varieties in the first year. "Sandwiches
are really our bread and butter," jokes Choi. The most popular sandwich
is so tasty they named it twice. The Rebel Rebel mixes smoked turkey
breast with fresh avocadoes and jalapeno jack cheese for all you
The cafe opened its doors in the fall of 2007, as
the housing market crumbled and the recession hit locals hard. Despite
the economic slowdown, the restaurant has had a steady stream of
customers for the past three years. So what's kept them around when so
many other restaurants, bars and coffee shops have folded? Call it a
recipe for "true happiness,'' as the Cantonese word 'hey' in the name
suggests. Choi and Co-Owner Anne Vela have perfected the balance of
creating a cool hipster vibe without sacrificing genuine warmth and
The small restaurant seems larger than it is,
thanks to the natural light streaming in from the storefront windows.
The exposed brick wall provides a textured backdrop for the group of six
small tables and chairs. Choi takes pride in the funky finished plywood
that covers the floors and local art that brightens the walls. "We're
unintentionally the real thing," Choi ruefully says of the restaurant.
fact that the restaurant used to be a storage unit for a supermarket
has a symbolic twist for the owners: The two former high school
classmates bumped into each other while grocery shopping several years
ago. The concept for Cafe Hey
was born from a business conversation that took place amid the melons
and mangoes in the produce aisle. Choi and Vela envisioned a place where
friends could hang out while indulging in more healthful eating habits.
relaxed community is sought after by more and more people, who also at
the same time need variety and you've got to respond to that desire.
Therefore we do offer more food choices than the classic coffee shop
model, but at the same time provide the community presence,'' says Vela.
leaving Tampa for college and spending a few years overseas, both Vela
and Choi found themselves moving back home to Tampa. The Tampa Bay
region appealed to these young entrepreneurs because of the close-knit
community that supports its own. "You do something of merit in Tampa and
lots of people pay attention," says Choi.Healthy Lunchtime Option
by the crowd that gathers at lunchtime, people are definitely paying
attention to this coffeehouse. Cafe Hey pulls in a diverse group of
regulars. Nearby office workers from the Bush Ross
law firm and from Stetson University College of Law
are among those who fill the cafe during the extended noon rush.
guest Danielle Green takes a sip of one of the daily soup specials, the
Southern Vegetable, and breathes in the aromatic flavors. Her
verdict? "Thumbs up, all the way around." A coworker at the
Hillsborough County Attorney's office recommended the place to Green.
"It's good to have more healthful lunch options downtown. I've become
more focused on what I put in my body,'' she notes.
Heights and Tampa Heights residents take advantage of the bicycle
corridor that leads to the cafe's doorstep. A bicyclist himself, Choi's
heart is warmed when the bike rack outside is full.
The graduate of H.B. Plant High School
in South Tampa earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Georgia
in Athens, then studied transportation and urban restructuring in China
and Belgium. Choi's study of choice proved handy when it came time to
select the location for Cafe Hey.
During those years of studying
and teaching abroad, a career in the food service industry never
crossed Choi's mind, even though his family owns the Chinese grocery
store next to the cafe. Vela comes from a family of restaurant owners
and has worked in the industry since her teenage years, before
graduating from St, John's College
in Annapolis, MD. Her culinary inspirations come directly from her life experiences.
been fortunate to have been exposed to many facets of society and
cultures and I've had many adventures,'' says Vela. "We have a diverse
group of people who work at Cafe Hey and I think these factors all
influence what we serve to customers.'' Foods That Sustain You
calls the shots in the kitchen, coming up with creative and tasty --
and sometimes unique -- combinations. She describes the menu as "Foods
that sustain you, nutritionally and spiritually. At the same time, we
strive to offer something for all tastes. You may have a slice of
frosted layer cake with your raw kale salad, you may have a Cuban
sandwich at 7 a.m.''
While Choi and Vela want people to be more
conscious of what they eat, the menu isn't pushy or preachy. Everyone
from the hard-core vegan to the meat lover will be happy with the
variety of choices offered. Tempting daily specials are as homemade as
the handwritten signs on which they are advertised: Enjoy the popular
orzo grain salad with cranberries, a breakfast burrito, or a Creamy
Potato Soup served cold for summertime.
The drink menu boasts
more than 15 coffee and tea beverages and the distinctive names show off
the owner's playful side. There's the tongue-in-cheek Skinny Bi-otch:
an espresso with skim milk and sugar free vanilla syrup. And the Quad
Shot -- four shots of espresso topped off with condensed milk for the
serious caffeine junkie.
Cafe Hey honors its Tampa roots by using a wide variety of local vendors. The coffeehouse buys coffee from Naviera
, bread from La Segunda
in Ybor City, tea from Kaleisia Lounge
and an array of gluten-free breads and desserts from Viitals
For a taste of what the cafe has to offer, check out their website
for events, live music, art and daily specials.
Amato is a freelance writer who considers a cup of cafe con leche and a
comfy porch chair required accoutrements when working from home in
Lutz. The Auburn University graduate can talk your ear off about college
football and loves living like a tourist in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.