Thursday, April 10, 2008

Renovations bring hope for new start at Greenbelt cafe

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The days of cooking food in the Greenbelt Community Center and walking it over to the New Deal Café are over thanks to the generosity of one couple whose lives are centered around good times, food and music.

Rockville resident Karim Kmaiha and his wife, Maria Almeida, are fronting the costs to renovate the New Deal Café’s kitchen. In the next two to three weeks, the café will have a new stove, oven hood, four juice machines, deep fryer, vegetable washing sink and more amenities. Kmaiha said the new equipment costs about $45,000 and the café will be closed until renovations are finished.

Originally from Lebanon, Kmaiha is a professional chef who has cooked traditional Lebanese and Mediterranean dishes for decades and has cooked for the Lebanese Taverna Café restaurants in Annapolis and Rockville’s Congressional Plaza. Both Kmaiha and Almeida, who will run the café, said a family friend who works at Greenbelt’s NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and performed at New Deal Café told them about the opportunity to serve the city. Almeida said the square in Old Greenbelt outside the café reminded her of squares in Europe where people congregate and catch up with each other.

‘‘They told us to look into it,” Almeida said. ‘‘We didn’t know that so much work was required.”

‘‘When I saw the place, I [liked] it,” Kmaiha said. ‘‘But sometimes I have feelings for something. I had a feeling for this place.”

Peter May, president of the café’s board of directors, said the city is supportive of Kmaiha and Almeida and described both as ‘‘warm, open people.”

‘‘There’s a great amount of excitement for this to happen, not just to have the café open as a place to meet but two people are coming in who have a sense of building community,” May said. ‘‘It makes everyone feel it’s a nice fit.”

As a fundraiser to pay bills and to introduce themselves to the community, Kmaiha and Almeida held a Mediterranean food feast at the café March 16 where 175 people came, ate and danced to Brazilian music. May hopes to have the café open by April 19 in time for the city’s Crazy Quilt Music Festival.

‘‘I just don’t want to lose the momentum,” Almeida said.

The generosity marks a turnaround for the café, which was in danger of closing last September because of looming loan debts. May said café staff has been all-volunteer since the beginning of February and was closed on Mondays and Wednesdays to cut down on operating costs. Kmaiha plans to be open seven days a week to serve lunch and dinner.

May, who declined to disclose the café’s amount of debt, said it stayed afloat with co-op member loans—residents with shared ownership of the café—musical group fundraisers and monetary donations from residents to the café and to the Friends of the New Deal Café Arts, a group formed to fundraise for events such as guest speakers and musical performances.

Board member Bill Wilkerson is scheduling inspection work with Washington Gas to install a gas line, a gas plumber, electrician and a roofer to seal the hole in the roof once the exhaust is installed. May said Wilkerson spends 12 to 14 hours a day making sure the work continues on schedule. May said Greenbelt City Mayor Pro Tem Rodney Roberts is even offering free professional welding services to install the oven hood, an exhaust system, services which May said would typically run for $9,000.

Wilkerson hopes to draw in lunchtime crowds from the Flight Center, the Beltsville Agricultural Center and University of Maryland, College Park faculty. Kmaiha said examples of dishes served will be falafel, chicken, beef and lamb kabobs and fattoush, a salad made of vegetables and pita bread. Traditionally, the café has served sandwiches, soups and quesadillas. Almeida said they will still serve some of the café’s more traditional fare, such as quiche.

E-mail Natalie McGill at