CAFE SOCIETY 


Once dominated by mom-and-pop operations, the American business landscape has all but been stripped of personality by corporate giants. However, in this era of Starbucks-type conformity, grass-roots eateries are springing up all over Central Florida to bring back a semblance of originality to the dining landscape. Some of them, like Cafe D'Antaño and Dandelion Communitea Cafe, also serve a higher purpose: to enhance and promote community by supporting local artists, crafters and musicians, and by promoting individual agendas of cultural appreciation and healthy living.

Cafe D'Antaño's niche is the Latin American community. Although the business (911 N. Mills Ave.; 407-362-0064) opened its doors in August, the idea for it was born four years ago, when Colorado resident Lorna Rolon – who had left her native Puerto Rico 26 years earlier to study medicine – grew nostalgic for home. Anxious to bring a little piece of Puerto Rico to the mainland, she talked to her half-sister, Gladys Martino, about starting a new business, and Cafe D'Antaño came into existence.

"This is like our home away from home," Martino says. "It's how our own homes in Puerto Rico used to be, always full of music and friends. We wanted to go back to that time."

They picked Orlando to house their venture because of its large and rapidly growing Hispanic population.

"They needed a place to go that addresses their nostalgia, because they come from countries where there is plenty of music and art," Martino says.

At Cafe D'Antaño, patrons can also feed their desire for food and drinks; there's an ever-changing menu of appetizers, coffee, tea, juice, beer, wine and homemade sangria. However, "it's not a pub or a bar or a restaurant," Martino clarifies. "It's a cultural place for artistic expression. Our purpose is to unify all cultures through the arts, because art is the universal language. Through art, we can create bridges and develop unity and peace."

The walls are decorated with works by local artists and culled from Martino's travels across the globe. The cafe also has jazz and live-music nights, an artisan's gallery, an open-mike night for singers and comedians, poetry readings and dancing. Martino often invites promoters and media personnel to hear the local musicians play. On Saturday nights, the cafe features the food and culture of a different country; guitarists play traditional melodies and rock in both Spanish and English. In the future, Martino plans to open a small theater out back to show independent and foreign films and present small plays. She also plans to promote the arts to young people by providing them with grants to study acting, dancing and art.

"We want to do it when they're really young, because if they start their education in the arts at an early age, they'll appreciate it more later, and become better people for it," Martino says.

But most important to Martino is the creation of a warm, homey environment. Filled with puffy armchairs, couches and wicker furniture, Cafe D'Antaño also features a candlelit, incense-scented upstairs lounge where patrons can unwind and converse quietly. Unlike at many establishments, customers are encouraged to stay and partake of the hospitality until the doors close.

"People come here from all walks of life, not just one country," says customer Guillermo Garcia. "It's not defined as a Latin hangout; that is, it's not a typical Latin cafe. It represents all of us. Everyone here is instantly your friend or acquaintance."

A welcoming place for friends to gather is what Julie Norris hopes her Dandelion Communitea Cafe (618 N. Thornton Ave.; 321-206-6621) will be when it finally opens. Dandelion was slated to debut in December, but suffered a setback when a contractor walked out on the job, Norris says. She enlisted friends and volunteers to help remodel the small bungalow she had purchased near the intersection of Mills and Colonial; thanks to their efforts, the cafe should open its doors this month. It will feature organic teas and coffees, a vegetarian menu and elixir tonics, concoctions of fruit juices and Chinese herbal medicine. Vegetarian chili and fluffernutter sandwiches will be among the signature items.

Everything at Dandelion is recycled, from tables and couches purchased at used furniture stores to Australian tea presses made from recycled glass.

"We're trying to be earth-friendly, so we're doing everything with recycled products," Norris says. "We got everything secondhand. Even a lot of our kitchen equipment is used."

The Australian presses, used to brew and serve tea, are doubly beneficial: They conserve water.

"It's important to me to not waste water, and a lot of tea-brewing implements do," Norris says.

Equally important to Norris is the advancement of local artisans, crafters and growers. She plans to feature a retail room offering handcrafted goods and homemade items. Her cafe walls will feature the work of local artists, and all food products will come from area suppliers.

"I'm really trying to promote a local vendors' movement," Norris says. "I'm also trying to get people closer to their food and agriculture by promoting eating with the seasons."

Healthy living is another agenda Norris is trying to boost. She believes the pesticides and growing methods used in traditional farming and produce production are harmful to the Earth and its residents. That's why she has dedicated her business to serving as an eco-friendly example.

"For me, everything has to be humane and organic," she says.

Although Dandelion Communitea Cafe is new, the idea of an environmentally friendly teahouse and eatery is not. It came to Norris in 2004, when she was working in the corporate world. Unsatisfied with her job, Norris wanted to do something that would make a difference.

"I was sitting with a friend and thinking, 'What can I do?'" she says. "My friend told me, 'You won't figure it out until you get it: that it's not about you, it's about the people you would affect.' When he said that, it just clicked."

A fruitless search for an organic diner in Orlando sealed the deal, and Norris began to formulate a plan of action. She spent six months doing research and putting together a business plan before testing her idea at local farmers markets.

"I wanted to see if the community would support the Dandelion Communitea Cafe concept, or if there was even room for it in Orlando," Norris says. "I found out there was an overwhelming group of people that would, and that were excited because there's never been anything like this in Orlando before."

A successful stint at Veg Fest 2005, a gathering of vegetarian and organic product vendors, gave Norris the confidence she needed to plow forward.

"Our booth was overwhelmed as soon as we got there," she remembers, "and the lines were 60 people deep at all times. We sold out of everything. It was a raging success. So after that I wasn't really worried anymore."

After Veg Fest, everything fell into place for Norris. Excluding the contractor incident, progress has been going smoothly, and will hopefully continue that way through the cafe's soft opening.

"We're trying to start modest`ly`, so we can respond to what the community wants," Norris says. "We want to be a community place with a community environment."

With that concept in mind, Dandelion will host performances by local musicians, poetry readings by local writers and classes (such as yoga) taught by local instructors.

Eventually, Norris hopes to bring in guest speakers and chefs to introduce patrons to new dietary concepts, and for her cafe to serve as a meeting place for local clubs and organizations. She also hopes to work with downtown's DMAC media center to host an independent-film night.

"I have a lot of ideas," Norris says. "But whatever we do, I just want to make sure we grow sustainably."

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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