Growing into the food business
NAPLES — When the COVID-19 pandemic presented Jodi Simons Caruso with lemons, she responded with yellow squash and zucchini. And lots of little tomatoes — red, yellow, orange and purple ones.
The pandemic forced her and her husband Mark to close the Naples yoga studio they owned for 16 years. Rather than twist themselves into tiny little knots and whine about the unfairness of it all, they instead opened a cafe on the village’s Main Street, in the space formerly occupied by The Grainery, which closed in May.
And there wasn't much time, as this time of year, everyone has zucchini and squash, so this brand new cafe owner got busy.
“We chopped up, I’m talking 5-gallon buckets of zucchini and yellow squash,” said Simons Caruso, describing the popularity of the cafe’s zucchini and yellow squash scramble over eggs — not to be outdone by the colorful tomato scramble with feta cheese over eggs.
“It’s just been amazing how popular that is.”
Caruso’s Cafe opened last weekend, with a steady stream of customers coming by for breakfast and lunch in the days since. Actually, that first weekend they were, in her words, “slammed.”
Admittedly, the cafe been a work in progress, she said. But she asks customers what should be changed and what can be done differently. Her line of questioning already has led to a new vegetarian menu item.
In addition to Cajun-seasoned fish tacos, with a homemade chipotle sauce, why not try it with black beans instead. Why not?
“Now I have to put that on the menu,” she said. “It’s so good.”
The transformation from downward dog pose to food prep has been an unexpected whirlwind, although Simons Caruso said she had worked off and on at The Grainery for 20 years.
When the state’s reopening guidelines came down, the Carusos figured they could fit at most two people in their yoga studio; ordinarily, it’s 12 to 14.
After about three months of paying rent with no business, they were about to tell their landlord they were closing when they learned of The Grainery’s situation. Long story short, “In three days time, we became cafe owners and the yoga studio closed,” she said.
This is a family business, as Mark, who works at Cumming Nature Center, does a very early shift before work and each of their four kids helps out. Many of the other local food and drink businesses also have been supportive in different ways, from food items to business advice to sounding board, she said.
And while there have been growing pains — get this, she said a coffee machine exploded — give the cafe time to grow. Case in point: She makes a point of hiring high school or college students, including Griffin Frazer, who said until two weeks ago he had never cut a bagel in two before. Now he has — many times over.
“And now I’m pretty good at it!” said Frazer, who plans to study video game programming and design at Finger Lakes Community College.
The cafe’s renovated interior also is shaping up.
Inside, one of the cafe’s walls showcases items from the Naples Historical Society. Soon, another wall will be filled with works by local artists, with rotating galleries every three months. Already, pottery and small sculptures are displayed in the front windows, and they’re for sale.
Even some of the tables are adorned with the kind of beautiful art that almost makes you not want to eat on it for fear of spilling food and coffee all over it.
“We just ask for patience, like any new place, to work out the kinks,” Simons said, noting that an outdoor building sign is on the way.
While pieces are continuing to fall into place, people are coming. Bruce Richardson and Clyde and Elizabeth Yee, from their window seat inside the cafe, noted the line of customers ordering on a Wednesday afternoon.
“I think the village and the area misses a place like this,” mused Richardson, after his BLT sandwich lunch.
Elizabeth Yee noticed a lot of Naples locals coming in. “I agree that it will probably be the local spot,” she said.
They like the atmosphere, but the food is what brings them in.
Based on how well his reuben sandwich went down, Clyde Yee said he thinks the cafe will go over very well. “We’ll be coming back,” he said.
Simons Caruso said she is happy to have asked Beth Porrazzo, her friend and the former owner of The Grainery, if her cafe could offer its “famous” Rockcastle — eggs, peppers, onions, cheese, and Woodstead sauce — because people must have missed it, judging by how often it’s ordered.
Whenever possible, locally sourced ingredients are used, whether fruits and vegetables from farms or locally produced sauces, maple syrup and honey, for example.
And they are used in unique ways.
One of Caruso’s signature items is a sandwich inspired by a story her son wrote about a boy who is a Greek god. The Rivera panini is made with artichoke, red onion, tomato, spinach, and provolone cheese on fermented rye with balsamic dressing.
“It’s a favorite, which surprised me,” Simons Caruso said. “Who gets an artichoke sandwich? But it’s so yummy.”
She and her family had a vision — and doubts, honestly — but for the first week of operation, the experience really has blown her away.
“It’s been amazing,” she said.
Good to know
• Caruso's Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays at 110 S. Main St., Naples.
• All of the containers, utensils, cups and lids are eco-friendly and compostable. "They may look plastic but they're not," said owner Jodi Simons Caruso.
• In addition to supporting local farmers and sourcing locally, Caruso's Cafe serves non-GMO fermented breads and there are gluten-free, vegeterian and vegan menu items
Eat, Drink and Be Murphy
The Eat, Drink and Be Murphy column explores the region’s bounty of food and drink — and the people who bring it to you — soup to nuts, accentuated with a craft beer or Finger Lakes wine. After all, who doesn’t love to eat and drink? Email assistant editor Mike Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 585-337-4229 with ideas and suggestions.