Cafe Aromas Therapy

November 18, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Finding Café Aromas is easy. Just drive down Grandville Avenue and look for the building with fresh paint.

Ayin Valdes and Mabel Carrillo knew that they were going to be trendsetters when they decided eight years ago to renovate a dilapidated industrial building in a depressed area of Grand Rapids. The couple has since spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a multi-use facility with four loft-style apartments, an office for their translation business, a retail space, and the recently opened café. Although there are many other businesses operating along the stretch of Grandville Avenue SW between Franklin and Hall streets, the couple’s café has a unique flair.

“She’s in the wrong business. She should have been an interior designer,” said George Bodbyl Jr., referring to Carrillo’s eye for décor. Bodbyl and his sister Emily dropped into the coffee shop for lunch on Nov. 15. Bodbyl said that he passes by the building frequently and was eager to see who was responsible for the dramatic facelift. After a lunch of Cuban sandwiches, he recanted his critique of Carrillo’s choice of occupation. He determined that she is well suited for the restaurant business, as well. He ordered two more sandwiches to go.

Such has been the community’s response to the café since its quiet Nov. 5 opening. Valdes said that they have been averaging around 30 customers per day — much closer than he expected to the 80-to-100 level he determined will be necessary for the business to turn a profit.

“I thought we’d have like one guy in here every day,” said Valdes. Instead, he and Carrillo and their three employees have kept quite busy. This is their first attempt at the restaurant business, and they keep encountering new challenges. “You know, you think that you’ll think of everything, but you get so busy.”

Customers have been very helpful fixing small details. Thanks to their suggestions, there is now a tip jar next to the cash register. The packets of powdered creamer may be replaced by fresh half-and-half. Valdes responded to many customers’ desires and will now be accepting credit cards. He and the staff are also experimenting with the café’s hours. At first, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. sounded good, but customers said they wanted later evening hours. So, the café will stay open until 8 or 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

The couple has done some limited advertising to local businesses and churches. They have seen a decent return on those efforts and hope to do more to draw customers from outside of the neighborhood. Customers like Bobdyl have reassured Valdes and Carrillo that downtown businesspeople would be glad to make the short trip once they try the food and see the prices. They hope he’s right.

Valdes thinks the café’s location may be its biggest challenge for two reasons. First, it does not have the same level of visibility enjoyed by some of its competitors, such as Four Friends Coffee House on Monroe Center. Secondly, the neighborhood has somewhat of a reputation. Nearby buildings have grates over the windows to prevent people from throwing rocks through them. The neighboring businesses don’t suffer from the appearance of decay and neglect, but “pretty” isn’t the first word that springs to mind in looking at them.

“People always say this place is too nice for the neighborhood,” Valdes said, laughing. From his perspective, he and his wife have set a standard that the rest of the neighborhood will eventually catch up to.

Café Aromas is located at 880 Grandville Ave. SW. It is open seven days a week. The establishment serves typical café fare such as coffee, espresso drinks and smoothies, as well as unique items such as the Cuban sandwiches and homemade desserts. All of the employees speak both Spanish and English.    

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