Cornbread, coffee and community in a Northwest Philly neighborhood

I’ve been told I’m an animal when I’m hungry, and maybe it’s true. I lumber, I grumble—all because of a rumble-tummy, a parched throat. The nose twitches and the eyes, well, I’m all eyes. Like a bad potato.

Today it’s breakfast, the snarling urge that pulls me from my cave. It’s late morning and I’m following locals. I used to be a local, a native, but after years of living Somewhere Else, I’m a stranger in a strange land. Take me to your leader, locals. Take me to your… breakfast.

Cloudy with a chance of cornbread

The corner of 72nd and Ogontz bears fruit in the form of Cornbread and Coffee, a cafe that looks wide awake this morning with its pale blinds drawn up revealing alert glass front windows. Inside, that wide awake feeling grows with a line at the counter three deep, customers already seated in the waiting area and each of the restaurant’s tables full-up. This is no sleepy little establishment waiting to be discovered. This is clearly the breakfast hub I’ve been looking for.

I sit down at a table already occupied by an older gentleman and a young kid. I can tell they’re regulars by their nonchalance. The gentleman reads his newspaper and the kid plays his Nintendo DS. Like most kids these days he’s able to multitask and, with one eye on me and the other on the DS, he gives me the low-down.

An eight year journey

Cornbread and Coffee is just a little older than he is. It turns out that he’s seven year-old T.J. Newby, the son of Troy Newby, who co-owns the café with his sister April Hidouri. If T.J. is seven, then the restaurant is about eight. Those eight years have been a learning experience for his father Troy and aunt April.

“The initial dream for April was that she wanted to do a traditional coffee shop, with coffee and muffins and things of that nature,” Troy Newby explains.

Sitting down next to her brother, Hidouri agrees. “Because I always loved coffee shops,” she says. “But we never had any in the hub of the neighborhood. There’s not any coffee shops in, you know, African-American neighborhoods.”

To boldly go where no Starbuck’s has gone before

So Hidouri set out to provide a service that she felt was missing in West Oak Lane. “When I started I was selling muffins and croissants and just egg sandwiches, and so the people came in and they really liked the idea of us, and they said this is really nice but what else do you have?”

Hidouri, also Cornbread and Coffee’s chef, found herself fielding requests for grits and home fries on a daily basis, even though that kind of fare isn’t standard on a coffee shop menu. She realized that in order to keep her clientele she’d have to compromise and expand the café’s offerings.

Not your traditional coffee shop

The result is a small restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch. In addition to cornbread and coffee, the menu includes eggs, pancakes, scrapple, bacon, grits, chicken salad and turkey chili to name a few of the more popular dishes.

The expanded menu has gone a long way toward keeping customers happy and winning over a neighborhood that initially raised concerns at zoning. “We had a lot of people against us before we even started,” Hidouri explains. “I had the one block here that actually came down to zoning to fight against me coming here because they felt like we would be more of a drug dealer haven.”

The breakfast crowd prevails

That fear wasn’t completely unfounded, Hidouri notes, because eight years ago dealers and addicts “used to hide their drugs on the ledge of the [café’s] building.” But she didn’t let that stop her from creating a place marked by warm customer service, good food and a family atmosphere. It took some time, but “through a lot of prayer and consistency,” Hidouri says, the drug corner gave way to a breakfast crowd.

Today, concerns about the restaurant are of a different nature. “I have a complaint,” says one customer, Mr. Billy Bacon. “It’s too good. The atmosphere is too good. The service is too good. The food is too good.”

I’m inclined to agree. I’m nearly facedown in my grits as soon as my plate arrives, mashing them into my scrambled eggs and snarfing them off of my fork at record pace. When I come up for air it’s to attack the bacon on the plate for a crisp, salty change in texture. I finish with the cornbread, perfectly moist and buttery.

A Southern tradition

It’s Thomas Newby, Troy and April’s father, who explains that in Louisiana and Texas where he’s from, cornbread is an institution. Folks eat it with dinner and have it again the next morning for breakfast with a cup of coffee. Troy liked the tradition and in it found the perfect name for a café that has turned out to be anything but a traditional coffee shop.

My plate clean, I fold up my napkin and sigh. The nose stills and the rumble-tummy falls silent. Thank you, locals, for sharing your breakfast secrets and helping me quiet the animal within. I leave Cornbread and Coffee with my eyes squeezed shut in satisfied delight. When I open them again at the corner of 72nd and Ogontz what I see around me looks a lot more like home.

 

Cornbread and Coffee is located at 7175 Ogontz Ave. in Philadelphia, 19138. It’s open Mon. – Sat. 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call (215) 424-0552 for more information.

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