Cafe Hey: Skinny Bi-otch, Quad Shot & Rebel Rebel, On North Franklin In Downtown Tampa

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's 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 hell-raisers.

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 friendliness.

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.

The 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.

"This 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.

After 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

Judging 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.  

First-time 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.  

Seminole 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.

"I've 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

Vela 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.  

Karyn 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.