Aug. 31, 2003 - Kokopelli in the American Southwest is a mythical flute player, playful, mysterious, full of known and unknown bounty.
Kokopelli Café on St. Thomas is filled with known bounty, and if you listen carefully to the little flute player, he will guide you to Market Square East where he presides. His images grace the terra cotta hued walls, the menus, the kids' room, the wall hangings of the spacious new café, and help generate the ambience of the bright new restaurant which will be open by the end of this week.
That same ambience is reflected in its youthful owners, Carla and Ahmad Suid. After about a year of traveling trying to figure out where to settle and what to do, they returned to St. Thomas, where they knew they belonged. New Mexico was "just too dry, no water."
About a year ago, Carla says, when they got back, "We started thinking about something we could do together," and, since they both have restaurant and retail backgrounds, a restaurant seemed the ideal project. "A restaurant where you can bring kids comfortably," Carla says.
The spacious café — about 3,000 square feet — is nothing if not child-friendly. "We wanted a place — not exactly upscale, but nice; not fast-food — where parents could dine while their kids can play and be entertained. And they came up with a unique idea: a play area for children where parents can monitor their activities from a closed-circuit television high on the dining area wall, distanced from the play area.
The café is a welcome oasis in a locale long aching for some place to get sustenance. If you want to meet friends before the movies, or just get a cold drink after a bout of shopping at Cost-U-Less, you have three choices: the soft-drink machines in Cost-U-Less, an upscale restaurant up the road which is closed on Sundays, or the fast-food franchises in the other direction. With the Home Depot store slated to open nearby before the end of the year, the café will be an even more welcome addition.
Ahmad, like the proud parent he is, pointed to the expansive play area. It features colors of blues, yellows, and reds with a miniature pinball game, little plastic cars and toys, toys, toys. The restaurant is large enough that the kids' play won't bother other diners.
The young couple, both in their thirties, have three youngsters — Jenna, 5; Tiffany, 4; and Adam, 3 — all of whom are enjoying the kiddie cars, while making new inroads between the tables. It takes a bit of time to get them to pose for a photo, but once Adam is assured he will get to see it on the computer newspaper, he calms.
The café features a $4.95 kids' meal: a slice of pizza and a soda in a souvenir take-home cup. It's also possible to drop in for an adult slice with a drink for $4.95, but you don't get that souvenir cup.
Should he ever consider such things, Kokopelli might be pleased at his images which grace the café.
The capricious little flute player is regarded as the universal symbol of fertility for all life, be it crops, hopes, dreams, love, or, in St. Thomas, a barbecue chicken pizza adorned with mango, chipolte peppers, chicken, plantains, peppers and provolone cheese. The menu features pizzas, gyros, strombolis, a stuffed pizza roll, calzones, fresh-baked foccacia bread, several salads (including Greek and tabouli), and daily specials which will feature pastas and desserts.
Prices are moderate: pizzas ranging from $10.95 for an individual 10-inch pie, to $19.95 for an 18-inch Margarita, or $16.95 for a traditional cheese pie. Sandwiches and salads range from $7.95 to $11.95. And desserts include a Greek baklava at $6.95 and cheesecake at $5.95.
Kokopelli Café will be open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays.
Deena Mills is the chef and Mike Rey is the pizza chef. The pizza menu will feature hand-thrown pizza baked in a an old-fashioned stone oven. As a nod to Ahmad's Middle Eastern background, the menu features, along with gyros served in a pita pocket, humus, taziki, and baba ganoush starters.
Ahmad — of Middle Eastern, Colombian and Puerto Rican background — grew up on St. Croix, graduating from St. Joseph High School. His family has been in the retail business in the Virgin Islands for years. Though Carla hails from the Southwest, Ahmad said what appealed to him about Kokopelli is that "he looks to me sort of like a Rastafarian."
As they are talking, both the new owners are in constant motion. There is much to be done before next weekend, when they plan to open for the first time. Workmen are installing the new equipment, job applicants come to the door (no thank you; already fully staffed right now), and passerby flock in the unlocked doors expressing their delight at having someplace new to eat and drink.
"Wow, this is so cool," says one prospective customer.
Ahmad takes a tour of the kitchen — it's spotless stainless steel — and he explains his method for controlling cleanliness in the crockery department. "Everything dirty goes in the left side of the kitchen, and comes out clean on the right side; nothing ever touches," he explains.
The room is decorated with orange and cobalt blue accents, carefully placed lighting fixtures.
Then it's on to the next part of their carefully laid-out dining room. There is a handsome blue-tiled counter where you order food and drink. A server will bring your order to your table, which bears your order number. And, if you have ordered pizza, you will have a silver pizza plate inches above the table, sort of like an old-fashioned cake plate, which leave the table free for individual plates unencumbered by the normally huge pie dominating the table space.
With the elan of a showman proffering his wares, Ahmad shows off his espresso, beer and wine bar, also surrounded by the gleaming blue tile. He reaches into a floor freezer and extracts an icy, chilled mug. "How about this?" he asks without awaiting an answer, "and we have the chilled pitchers, too, Australian Fosters and English Newcastle beers on tap.
The bar also features espresso and cappuccino, which, along with a glass of wine, can be enjoyed, after the movies, for instance, in a lounge in a cozy corner, facing the front windows. It has three English leather couches — red, yellow and blue — surrounding a coffee table. "Sit on this couch," Ahmad says, "you won't want to get up." He has a point.
Carla and Ahmad have been working on the café since April. Carla praises their architect, Michael de Haas: "Without him, it just wouldn't be just like this." De Haas translated on paper what Carla and Ahmad had in their dreams: a happy, airy place blessed by its own little humpbacked spirit a bit of the Southwest in St. Thomas.
The restaurant business is not for sissies; it can be very demanding. Ahmad looks around at what they have accomplished so far: "Nothing has been left to chance," he said. With his retail and restaurant background and Carla's restaurant experience, they came into the enterprise armed with knowledge.
Ahmad moves one of the tiled counters surrounding the bar area. "Look," he says, "in case we have equipment failures, we can move this right out to move other stuff in."
One thing not left to chance is their roomy office, one that many restaurateurs would give their prize knife for. "I used to do my studying in the layaway office after school," Ahmad says. His parents own several retail stores. This office has a couch and kind of feels like a living room.
"We knew we would be spending lots of time here, and this is a place the kids can use, too," he says.
And this isn't all the ambitious couple has up their sleeves. With probably an eye to the younger set, they are opening an ice cream parlor next door: Yummies. "It's going to be an actual frozen des
sert store," Carla says, "with other things, too — candied apples and cotton candy." They hope to have it open before the end of the year.
It is said, if you follow his sweet music, the Kokopelli will lead you to "fun, joy, good health, fertility and luck," and — perhaps disregarding the fertility aspect — to Market Square East. Or, as Carla and Ahmad put it, "Hang out, dig in, and enjoy."
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.