Summer is well on its way and several local eateries are replacing their winter menus with spring offerings. One of them is Caffè Blu, which launched its new spring menu last week with appealing options for everyone, from the very hungry to the not-so-hungry.

Whether you are in a hurry or have time on your hands, this delightful coffee shop is conveniently located in the centre of town, in the Old Station Building behind Hermanus Tourism, next to the Checkers Centre, with ample parking.

The premises were given a refreshing make-over by owner, Ilse-Marié Thiart, who took over the business in May last year. There are several nooks and crannies inside, with tables large and small, a comfy couch and chairs, and an outside seating area. With the convenience of unlimited free WiFi, customers can often be seen working on their laptops in a quiet corner, while groups gather around the bigger table in another corner to conduct informal meetings.

“I used to drink coffee here when I was on maternity leave and I remember thinking that this little place had a lot of potential,” says Ilse-Marié, adding that she was only interested in an established business that was already up and running. When her offer was accepted, she threw herself heart and soul into this new venture.

Ilse-Marié, the hands-on owner of Caffè Blu, which launched its new spring menu this week. PHOTOS: Hedda Mittner

A savvy businesswoman, Ilse-Marié hails from Bloemfontein, where she studied hotel management. While Bloem might be a long way from Hermanus, she says she has always had a close connection with Hermanus. “My family had a holiday home in Voëlklip for many years, so I spent many holidays here while growing up. My parents also settled here permanently after retirement.”

As part of her studies, Ilse-Marié had to complete two stints of practical work and for the final one, she ended up at Grootbos, working front of house for six months. That was when she met her future husband, Reino, the winemaker at Whalehaven, who at that time was working at the Wine Village. After graduating, Ilse-Marié headed south again to be closer to Reino, working at several hotels in and around Cape Town and as a sommelier in Franschhoek.

By the time they got married in 2008, Reino had been appointed as the winemaker at Whalehaven and Ilse-Marié joined Hermanuspietersfontein, where she worked for 11 years, initially as sommelier in the tasting room and later as the national sales manager. The couple have two children, aged eight and two.

Now running her own business, she says that getting to know her market has been a learning curve. “I had a lot of fancy ideas but I quickly learnt that it was not about what I wanted but what the customers want. And with such a diverse market that includes both tourists and locals – ranging from shoppers and working people to young mothers and the elderly – I had to understand what their needs were. While some of my customers prefer to linger, others are in a hurry and need to be served pronto with coffee and eats they can enjoy on the run. I also have to take into consideration that I have a tiny kitchen, so I need to plan very carefully.”

The original owner’s intention was to create a self-service coffee bar with grab-and-go items such as sandwiches and muffins – a concept that works well in world cities such as London and New York. But this is Hermanus, where friendly service and interaction with customers are essential ingredients of a successful business. “If the staff remain behind the counter and don’t serve clients, the whole establishment is experienced as an unwelcoming environment,” says Ilse-Marié.

But that has all changed now. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, and customers are greeted with smiles and efficient service. The well thought-out menu offers a variety of options for breakfast, lunch and anything in between.

“I have a very loyal breakfast crowd and we serve breakfast all day,” says Ilse-Marié. Apart from the basic Early Bird Special at only R30, she has added a number of deliciously healthy, innovative dishes such as the popular Breakfast Bowl (rocket drizzled with olive oil and dry-fried pumpkin seeds, topped with fried mushrooms, tomatoes, avocado and two poached eggs), Rise & Shine (ciabatta topped with baby spinach, fried mushrooms and a poached egg) and Shakshuka (two poached eggs served on a tomato and pepper stew, with coriander, Danish feta and pickled carrots).

Caffè Blu’s new spring menu also offers a variety of lunch options, including salads, gourmet sarmies and excellent homemade pies (believe me, there are pies and then there are pies!) served with stasiesous and a choice of fries or a side salad. Now that she’s been granted a liquor licence, Ilse-Marié is very excited about Caffè Blu’s house wine, which customers can enjoy with their lunch. Made by her winemaker hubbie, Reino (who else?), this Rhône-style blend of Viognier and Roussanne is an absolute delight, with a pretty floral character and aromas of sun-ripened stone fruit – a perfect wine for summer.

For those with a smaller appetite there are also freshly-baked croissants and muffins, and a gorgeous homemade granola served with yoghurt, seasonal fruit and honey. The granola is available for purchase, along with freshly ground coffee and irresistible sweet treats. While the focus is firmly on coffee, other refreshing drinks include freshly-squeezed juices, smoothies, milkshakes and ice cream lattes. Their unique house blend (locally roasted and blended from four different beans) can be enjoyed on the premises or on the go, be it an Americano, cappuccino, latté, Mocha or flat white.

Speaking of coffee, Ilse-Marié has embraced the concept of Caffè Sospeso (Italian for ‘suspended coffee’), which encourages customers to pay for a cup of coffee in advance as an anonymous act of charity. The tradition is said to have originated in the working-class cafés of Naples more than a hundred years ago, when someone who had experienced good luck would order a sospeso, paying the price of two coffees but receiving and consuming only one. A poor person enquiring later whether there was a sospeso available would then be served a coffee for free. Although this tradition declined during the post-war economic boom, it was revived in Italy during the 2008 recession and is now being adopted by coffee shops around the world.

Ilse-Marié says her customers can either donate a sospeso anonymously or specify a recipient of this simple act of kindness. Last month she decided to donate the sospesos to the wonderful staff of the Hermanus Library; next month it may be SAPS or the hospital. “It’s just a fun way of paying it forward by treating those people who work selflessly to provide essential services for our communities,” says Ilse-Marié.

Caffé Blu is open from Monday to Saturday from 07:00 – 17:00 (18:00 during the summer months). Sundays and holidays: 08:00 – 15:00. Contact 028 312 4096 or info@caffeblu.co.za

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