You left New York City for the Old Pueblo. That’s a big change.
The culture shock was quite significant, but I think it’s a culture shock to anyone who moves here. The Sonoran Desert is so vastly different from any other place, but I think that’s exactly the reason people love it so much. After 10 years in New York, I was ready for something very different. I didn’t want to live in another big city.
Did you open Café Passe as a way to keep a bit of the Big Apple with you and introduce a slice of it to Tucsonans?
I suppose I did, although not intentionally. When I first opened in 2006, this little dark space was a blank canvas. I had no vision per se; it was my first business and I just desperately wanted to succeed.
And how does Tucson feel to you today?
Tucson and the surrounding desert always felt ancient and sacred. With all the new development, I hope Tucson will never lose its sense of self, its history, its food, and its culture. I love how close we are to Mexico and the ocean, this beautiful Sea of Cortez. My daughter riding horses, kicking up dust, the Catalinas in the background, the fact that I can have chickens in the middle of a city, superior sunsets—these are things that make me smile every day.
And how about the people?
I have a small but amazing Tucson family. Tucsonans hold their own just like this desert does. The stillness and balance of the desert is what I gravitate toward in people these days. It took me years to walk a little slower and slow down in general, after New York. And the fact that I’ve been able to run a seven-day-a week cafe with weekends off, thanks to an incredibly supportive and understanding staff.
A single mom and a restaurateur—that’s not for sissies!
Yes, at the time I had a 2-year-old toddler and I borrowed money from my family. Wanting to succeed had nothing to do with self-fulfillment or realizing a dream back then. All I knew was I have to pay everyone back and put food on the table, raise my daughter. Everything was put together in pieces. Only after a few years did I start seeing a bigger picture, and really, it was only after customers started telling me they’re reminded of Europe or New York that I started to see it, too. It was great to hear, of course—and it still is.
Does your daughter work in the cafe?
Lola is now 12 years old and she has no interest in it whatsoever. But when she was 5, 6, 7, the school bus driver dropped her right in front of the restaurant. She strapped on an apron and I gave her a rag and she cleaned tables. People gave her a dollar and she loved it.
How do your German roots figure into the cafe?
I’m from a little southwestern town called Schwäbisch Gmünd, between Munich and Stuttgart. I always keep a few German bottled beers on the menu.
Can you explain why Germans love Arizona so much?
Spaghetti Westerns were huge in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. And there was a TV series in Germany called Winnetou that was super cheesy. When I take friends and family out to the desert, over to Gates Pass, they remember the scenes of cowboys and Indians riding over the hills. Every time I’m there, I hear the theme music. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!
I know artist types and students love your place, but what about others: soccer moms, hipsters, office workers?
Luckily we get customers from all walks of life; that’s what keeps a place interesting. We definitely want to serve all of the community, not just part of it. I love to see people play chess, read books, knit, work on their computers, or meet friends over a meal or a coffee. Tucson is full of people with incredible talent, creativity, ambition, and survival skills. Great musicians, photographers, painters, entrepreneurs of any kind—I’m blown away by this wave of crafts people of late, with a focus on handmade and locally made.
I know the cafe buys as much as possible from local producers and that you also donate compost to the Food Bank.
It is such an important redirecting of our purchasing habits; the focus is really on quality over quantity. The beer brewers, the farmers, metal and wood workers, and these young guys making quality jeans, bags, and whatnot. They’re unique and they inspire; let them have their beards.
You have gotten mostly online raves, but been knocked a few times, too, by diners. Care to comment?
Sometimes the food comes out wrong or it takes too long, but it’s never intentional. As a small-business owner, there’s only so many things I can control; sometimes, I’ve wished I had 12 of me. But to condemn someone’s life work, that’s hard to swallow. I wish people weren’t so quick to judgment. The Internet is too often a funnel for anger and instant gratification. It can do so much damage.
Are you still hosting live music?
We stopped hosting music earlier this year and now only have live music for special events and in conjunction with our in-house record store, The Wooden Tooth. It was a painful decision for me; I loved utilizing our patio stage and patio bar for shows. In the end, I just had to decide what to focus on going forward: is it going to be coffee and food or a venue for music? It can’t be everything. I have the greatest admiration for Jo Schneider of La Cocina; she does it all. I don’t know how, but she pulls it off.
Do you showcase artwork?
The art on our walls rotates every two months and they’re all local artists. I think it only makes sense to grace the walls of a cafe with local art; it gives the artists an opportunity to show their work, hopefully to sell some. And we get to look at lots of cool art, too. It’s just another avenue to connect a place with its community, which is really the heart of a cafe anywhere. ✜
Café Passe. 415 N. Fourth Ave. 520.624.4411.
Suzanne Wright is a Cave Creek-based freelance writer.