Volume 17 • Issue 4 | June 18 - 24, 2004

A welcome oasis

Café open for your well-being

By Sharon Hartwick

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

When Beebe Okoye opened Kiva Café a year-and-a-half ago she had big plans for the little space. She wanted to serve high quality food and coffee and teas. But she also wanted it to be a “kind of oasis,” a place to relax and unwind, enjoy good art and connect with others in the community.

“It’s the whole idea of well-being…. I guess that’s the tagline for the company — ‘open for your well-being,’ because everything we do has that in mind,” she said.

Okoye had dreamt for some time of going into business for herself. A trained architect and artist, and a lover of good food, she brought multiple talents to the task.

For seven years she’d worked for an architectural firm in Soho before being laid off in 2002. And while it wasn’t the best of times, or economies, she decided to take the leap.

She discovered the space on Hudson Street, knowing it was a little off the beaten track but recognizing its potential. More important, it was affordable, as she had to borrow money from friends and a friendly bank to make her restaurant possible.

“I felt like a pioneer on this block. It was a forlorn location,” she said. Just north of Canal Street near the Holland Tunnel, at the time there was little foot traffic on the block and no other retail shops. So she knew word of mouth and satisfied customers would be key to success.

She had done her homework, however, and sized up the competition. The gourmet delis were mostly takeout, most area restaurants were pricier and Starbucks was well, Starbucks. She would offer good, fresh food reasonably priced for takeout or eating in, and in a congenial and laidback setting.

She and her manager, Indergeet Anand, whom Okoye described as “the backbone” of the business, have been together since opening day.

Initially they served mostly coffees, teas and other drinks, breakfast offerings, including homemade scones and muffins, and desserts. But soon, driven partly by customer demand, they branched out into specialty sandwiches and “savory” tarts, soups and salads, quiches and other sweets like their trademark bread pudding.

Okoye, who is a young-looking 36, is African American, although her grandmother was Native American. She grew up in Arizona and after graduating from the University of Arizona, worked as an architect locally, designing, among other projects, adobe houses.

The name “kiva” (kee-vuh) is an ancient Native American term for a gathering place, where people would come together for meetings or ceremonies, including feasting ceremonies. Typically kivas built into the earth would have niches in the walls where artifacts or artwork were displayed.

That concept inspired her creation.

The 700-square foot restaurant includes a 200-foot outdoor garden in the back. Okoye has made maximum use of the space. She designed 16 niches into the dining room’s long white wall. On exhibit are the ceramic works of various artists, all for sale. The tables themselves show off artwork — under glass table tops lovely small ceramic bowls are displayed.

Okoye, herself, makes pottery and created the restaurant’s ceramic dishes and mugs. If someone wants to buy a piece, it’s for sale. The crowd includes colleagues who meet over lunch and working-people on the go stop for lunch and plug in their laptops. Anything goes.

The garden area seats 14 and can accommodate 30 for catered events such as cocktail or birthdays. She often has musicians stop by and play and sometimes shows movies by hooking up a makeshift screen on the tall brick wall.

“It was exciting to see this turn into an outdoor theater,” she said.

They can create just about any kind of custom menu — what Okoye describes as a “world delights of food,” from Italian and American to Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, French and Asian.

While Okoye, Anand and two other helpers do most of the prep and serving and some baking on premises, they also have outside help. Jennifer Abadi, for one, a baker and chef, specializes in Syrian dishes as well as kosher and vegan foods.

Okoye continues to plan ahead. Maybe in the future she’ll open a Casa Kiva and market her own line of pottery and home furnishings. But in the meantime she’s content that business is humming, customers are returning and she’s seeing many new faces — people who are “turning the corner and discovering this forlorn part of Hudson.”

Anand said her boss is easy to be around and has a wonderful nature, which seems to rub off on their customers.

For Okoye success is simple: “If I can get people to connect here and live out their dreams — that’s nourishment for me.”

Kiva Café and Catering is located at 229 Hudson Street, north of Canal Street, and is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mon. through Fri. and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sun. For more information, call 212-229-0898 or visit www.kivacafe.com

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