- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2001

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Audrey Nwanze knew just how to jump-start a Northwest community and reinvigorate a city corridor long ignored by upscale restaurateurs and merchants. All she needed was a cozy space, an espresso machine and her conviction that a coffeehouse could be the jolt the community needed to get it up and running.

She could learn how to make a perfect espresso later. First, she and her mother and business partner, Judi Haskins, had to find the right space. Opening a coffeehouse had been her long-time dream, Ms. Nwanze says.

"We put a picture of a European-style coffeehouse on the wall of our home three years ago. That was the goal, and the picture kept the goal in sight," she says. "We never wanted a Starbucks; we wanted a venue that was more casual, more community-based. Most importantly, we wanted the people who lived in the community to be a part of the experience."

When she and her husband, George, moved to 16th Street Heights in 1997, the thirtysomething couple found a void in their neighborhood: It had no romantic restaurants or cafes, quaint bookstores or stylish boutiques in which to browse or shop leisurely. Retail businesses that give communities charm and cachet were nowhere to be found.

"There just weren´t any outlets for people who live in the neighborhood there weren´t any places for them to patronize," Ms. Nwanze says.

That has changed. Now there´s Mocha Hut, touted as "your neighborhood coffeehouse," at 4706 14th St. NW. The mother-and-daughter duo transformed a vacant variety store into a cultural cornucopia that serves cappuccino.

It´s a place where book clubs convene, friends and neighbors stop by with newspapers in hand to sip a steaming hazelnut-mocha latte or while away the hours with a good book and a Smoothie. The fare is health-conscious and rich at the same time. There´s an assortment of vegetarian delights, plus mouth-watering lemon-poppy-seed muffins, buttery almond croissants and lemon-iced Bundt cakes for one or two if a person chooses to share.

Neither mother nor daughter had a clue about coffee beans or how to run a coffeehouse. They sought out the expertise of Carla Bravo, a former co-owner of the now-closed Roasters on the Hill, a black-owned and -operated espresso bar. Ms. Bravo provided the know-how they needed.

"She was our mentor throughout the entire process. We didn´t have any retail experience whatsoever, but we had Carla´s guidance," Ms. Nwanze says.

"She took us over the ins and outs of operating a coffeehouse. She provided the training for our staff. Before opening day, I had never made a latte in my life, but I´m a pro now, and I can do it blindfolded," she says, laughing.

What Ms. Nwanze knew all along has been proved true. Open it and they will come. And they do. Folks from neighboring Northwest communities along 16th Street, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan and even Takoma Park and Brookland pour in and not just for a cup of caffeine.

"It´s become a community center that serves not only the community, but the greater city," says Curtis Solomon, a retired lawyer who lives minutes from Mocha Hut.

Mr. Solomon can drink coffee at home, but he prefers to frequent Mocha Hut. He can catch up on his reading, wind down or simply reflect on the events of the day with his own special concoction, which he jokingly refers to as "Solomon´s Blend."

"I´ve been in this area since 1989, and I´ve noticed that the city is changing, the area is changing. Now the coffee shop is here. I guess the question is, why wasn´t it here earlier?

"Maybe the time was right. It´s great. There are so many beautiful people there from all walks of life, from all ethnic and racial groups. You have diversity you have it all," he says.

Indeed, along with a steady stream of gourmet coffees and yummy delicacies, Mocha Hut serves up poetry, music and art, Ms. Nwanze says. That´s the blend the mother of four envisioned.

"Poetry is a magnet for younger people, and it provides a medium for them, so we host a poetry writers´ workshop on Thursday evenings. We´re not exclusive; we´re inclusive, and we hope to attract a wide group of people."

Local poet and writer Dehejia Lovely moderates the weeknight workshops and even assigns homework, Ms. Nwanze says with a smile. When the two women met, they liked each other immediately. Ms. Lovely got an invitation to conduct a poetry reading at Mocha Hut´s grand opening in October. Since then, groups of 12 to 20, ranging in age from 9 to 65, come out regularly to meet other poets and writers and share their work.

The poetry writers´ workshop got a surprise visit not long ago from raconteur Gil Scott-Heron, who is known for his sociopolitical lyrics. A friend of Ms. Lovely´s, Mr. Scott-Heron stopped by to chat and answer a flurry of questions from inquisitive students of verse.

Inside the warm-hued coffeehouse with its copper ceiling and contemporary lighting fixtures, art abounds. The walls exhibit the creativity and talent of local artists such as Calvin Coleman, Baltimore´s Poncho Brown, photographers Cathy Kataona and Shawn James, and ceramist Leila Stork. Comfy wingback chairs and love seats beckon; tables for two that can accommodate up to four make it a pleasure to sit back, appreciate the artwork and listen to live jazz. There´s no cover charge.

On Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m., music resonates throughout the cozy space. The coffeehouse was packed recently as patrons enjoyed the soulful sounds of State of the Groove, a jazz trio that accentuates its music with poetry.

Ms. Nwanze says music is a mainstay at Mocha Hut. Baba D & the Faculty, featuring Harlan Jones, have performed for audiences at Mocha Hut. Amos Jones, formerly Basehead, is another featured group at the coffeehouse. Last Friday, jazz songstress Esther Williams wowed audiences. She was accompanied by her husband, saxophonist Davey Yarborough.

In the future, Ms. Nwanze says, Distinction, a jazz and funk group, will perform. One of the quartet´s members, jazz pianist Sam Prather, swings by on Sundays and treats customers to a few jazzy standards. Although his piano performances are somewhat impromptu, Ms. Nwanze plans to make the piano player a permanent part of the coffeehouse´s repertoire this summer.

She is working with Michael Ivy of Amos Jones to bring in new artists to feature at Mocha Hut. The coffeehouse would be a place for their exposure, she says. Right now, Mocha Hut is working on a CD a compilation that features works from the different artists who have performed there. The CD is due out in July.

Think of Mocha Hut as an extension of your front porch. With the advent of spring, music and laughter will spill out onto the streets. Ms. Nwanze and Ms. Haskins plan outdoor seating for customers. It works in Georgetown and Dupont Circle. They´re confident that it will work on 14th Street.

"So often people go home and shut their doors and live in a vacuum because they don´t feel connected. Well, this is a place for the community to come together and have a good time," Ms. Nwanze says with a smile.

For more information about featured artists and hours of operation, call 202/829-6200.

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