When Sija and Husko Celic opened the doors of their new coffee shop three months ago, they did so with a simple goal in mind: To caffeinate Astorians via a neighborhood-oriented, traditional American coffee house. Caffino (29-18 Crescent Street, Astoria, 917-832-6961) is their first business together, but neither of them is new to the service field. “I’ve always worked in hair salons, restaurants, and I’ve done all types of hospitality jobs my whole life,” said Sija, who still splits her time between Caffino and her sister’s hair salon in the West Village. Husko worked in hotels and even owned owned a cafe in Montenegro before moving to New York eight years ago.
While the shop is small, it’s cozy, with colorful walls and a little red dresser set against the exposed bricks. Customers are greeted with warmth and a glad-to-see-ya smile. “What I wanted to do was something where you can come and spend five dollars, but you’re going to get a good quality for that five dollars,” Sija said. “If it’s to have the coffee, or just to take in the ambiance or sit on the bench outside – whatever it is that makes them come in, it’s a great thing for us.”
Sija, a people person through and through, is optimistic and eager to establish their role in the community. She sat down with us to talk about coffee, community, and learning to be a business owner.
How did Caffino come about?
We both like coffee, and if we really love a place, we’re, like, married to that place. We only go there. I’ll drive 20 minutes to get a cup of coffee if I really like the coffee, I’ve always been that way. For me it’s just about wanting what I want, and I don’t care how far I have to go to get it. We’re coffee people, but not the coffee-snob types — like I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything and everything about coffee and beans. We’re not educated in that sense yet, but we do have a passion for coffee.
So a lot of learning as you go then?
Of course, I’m learning each day, and it’s super interesting. I mean, I’m not a roaster. If it’s one thing me and my husband don’t do, it’s false advertise. We don’t sit there and act like we know everything when we don’t. I do want to be able to answer any question someone throws at me.
If it’s good, it’s good, right?
Yeah! And I like what coffee stands for — bringing people together and socializing. That’s also kind of why it was about coffee for us. We didn’t want to go into anything with restaurants. I’m not a chef, he’s not a chef.
Do you think as you learn more you’ll change how you do things?
It’s very possible. There’s such a broad spectrum to how things are roasted, certain tastes, certain regions. Coffee is one of the largest commodities in the world. It doesn’t matter where you go, people understand coffee. I know it sounds cheesy, but that’s what I like. Every culture has a different type of coffee they like to drink, or how they drink it.
Can you tell us more about getting the idea off the ground?
We were kind of just talking about it, but not setting anything in stone. When we would talk hypothetically, I said, “I want to do an American coffee shop, not anything European-based. A traditional coffee shop but with our own style.” I happened to be walking in the neighborhood, I saw the store for rent and I got excited.
We hear a lot about the economy bouncing back but it doesn’t always seem that way; how did that affect your decisions?
You keep hearing the economy is getting better, and maybe it is. We were willing to make this investment because in life you have to take risks sometimes. We just didn’t want to be those people saying should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. So, God willing, or the universe or whoever it is that’s out there, with all the hard work that we put in, I think everything will go very nicely. But there is no guarantee. You can be the busiest place for five years and then all of a sudden — boom — you’re dead and sinking. It definitely can be scary, but that’s something I try not to think about.
Having been open for two months now, how do you feel?
We learn each day. I’m learning how to be a business owner. You worry if you’re doing the right thing, if you’re making the right choices, but overall we feel good.
How has Caffino been received?
The neighbors and the locals have been super welcoming. It’s nice and refreshing to hear a customer say ‘Wow, we really needed this.’ There are such wonderful people in the neighborhood, and when do you have time to know your neighbors? We’re always running, there isn’t any walking and just smelling the flowers. We’re all about supporting the the community. Little by little, when I get to know what everyone’s cause is, what people are working for and looking to achieve, I want to get more into charity work.
Is there a Caffino philosophy?
No, it’s just who we are. I wish I had a little motto or something, but I don’t. I’m sure everyone says this, but we’re just good-hearted people and we want to see everyone be happy. We just want to give people good products and we want people to enjoy coming in.
How do you plan to set yourselves apart from all the other coffee in Astoria?
I haven’t quite figured that out yet, but I think each place does have their own name for themselves. So the places that serve good coffee besides us — like Kinship, Kickshaw, Milkflower — I just feel like everyone’s business represents who they are and what they stand for. And the fact that we’ve all gone with different coffee providers tells everyone our specific tastes.
Tell us about your coffee.
We went with La Colombe. It was more about the taste for me and my husband. Being that Astoria is so diverse, I just felt like they would gravitate toward La Colombe. For one, we really liked it, but I wasn’t just thinking about us, I was trying to think about what the locals would want. I feel like everyone loves our drip coffee and our cold brew, so I feel like we made a good decision. It’s full-bodied and balanced, with cocoa and dark fruit tones. It’s smooth, and there’s no bitter aftertaste.
What are you thinking looking forward?
We’re only two months in, so it’s kind of hard to predict where we’re going to go. Our goal would be to be here 10 years from now, or 15 years from now, and just be part of the community. I love when I hear of places being open for 15 or 20 years; it just shows that people care about them. It shows that hard work trumps a lot of stuff, and I’m a firm believer that if you work hard, you’ll be able to accomplish a lot.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2014