Feel Good Story of the Year: Customers Pay $50,000 to Save Local Coffee House

Smooch coffee house had received the kiss of death.

Investors had just informed its owner Basquali (he goes by one name) that they couldn’t take the acrimony anymore between him and his partner/ex-girlfriend Kalalea (so does she), and had found a buyer for his three-year-old Ft. Greene, Brooklyn café, who were going to turn it into another business.  A clause in the shareholders’ contract gave Basquali two weeks to match the $50,000 sales offer, but without the money, nor any prospects of getting it, Smooch was about to be smote.

Basquali of Smooch coffee house

Basquali, owner of Smooch Cafe in Brooklyn, asked his customers for help when his café’s future looked dim.

This was somewhat ironic, since Basquali had opened the café to foster the kind of “community” he relished in his native Australia, where the staff didn’t ask you every day for three years, “What do you want,” (prompting Basquali to want to scream, “The same thing I have every day!”).  One day, while riding his bike in the neighborhood, Basquali passed a storefront that looked like an ideal spot for a café, and despite having spent virtually his entire professional life as a photographer and having never worked once in a café, he decided to open his own, with Kalalea.

It seemed like a good partnership. Kalalea was a private chef and Basquali was very detail-oriented. He drew up a 45-page business plan and mapped out everything, down to the hours of operation, the look of the tables, menu items, and what kind of piped-in music to play. The couple raised $70,000 in a week to make the plan a reality, and then, less than three months before Smooch was scheduled to open, Basquali and Kalalea broke up romantically.

The café opened in March 2006, and while the split was amicable, and café business was great, it quickly became obvious that the duo couldn’t peaceably co-exist working together.  This led to what Basquali, 46, calls “three years of absolute misery,” after which Kalalea decided she wanted to sell, and the investors agreed.

Um, excuse me, but can I have $50,000?

Aside from being out of a job, Basquali felt that losing the café would constitute a moral loss: after all, his idea of creating community had succeeded. Smooch became a gathering hub for artists, writers, graphic designers, and other creative and business folks in the neighborhood, who lounged in the 30-seat interior, or outside, on the various wicker chairs, couches, and benches that crammed the sidewalk. Customers loved the organic coffee and food, and camaraderie. Folks regularly told Basquali that Smooch meant a lot to them. Now, to save the café, Basquali decided to find out exactly how much it meant:

He decided to ask his most loyal customers to lend him $50,000.

The loan, he told them, would be interest-free for a year. In exchange, they would get free coffee until he paid them back. If they drank a lot of coffee, he explained, they’d be making a “good return” on their investment. Most importantly, it would keep Smooch alive.

Basquali raised the money in 10 days.

‘Smooch Saviors’ to the Rescue

He received the contributions from about a dozen or so “Smooch Saviors,” as they came to be called, and ranged from John Heilemann, author of “Game Change,” the best seller about the 2008 presidential election, who only claimed one cup of coffee during the year, to Ina Howard-Parker and her husband, who live nearby and continue to come to the café several times a week.

Ina Howard-Parker

Ina Howard-Parker is one of Smooch’s ‘Saviors.’

“It was the best deal ever,” Howard-Parker laughs. “It felt like highway robbery, especially at four dollars a cup. I felt like a real mafioso. I definitely stayed well-caffeinated.”

Like the other saviors, she wanted to still have a place to come and see friends she’d met there.

True to his word, Basquali paid back his benefactors within the year (frequent coffee imbibers like Howard-Parker got paid back first), and took them all out to dinner “to celebrate the Savior-hood.”

Basquali says he had no qualms about asking customers for the dough because he knew he’d pay them back, they knew he’d pay them back, and quite simply, no one wanted to lose the café.

“’Smooching’ is an intimate act, where people come together,” Basquali says, explaining the inspiration for the café’s name. “That’s what this place is.”

While primarily a “day place,” Smooch is open evenings, serving food and wine, and sometimes has live music on the weekends.  Basquali changes the menu roughly every four to five months, with whimsically-named items like the “No Animals Were Harmed During the Making of This Breakfast” breakfast and a sandwich dubbed “The Mysterious WTF.”

Oddly enough, you won’t find the name “Smooch” anywhere on the outside – or the inside – of the coffee house, except for on the menu. Basquali says he never got around to making a sign.

“Besides,” he adds, “People here know that anyone who wants to come here will find it.”

Which, clearly they do.

After all, it’s a “community.”

Smooch is located at 264 Carlton Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205. Phone: (718) 624-4075. Mon.-Wed. 8am-9pm, Thur.-Sun. 8am-late.  www.smoochorganic.com

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