What do a couple of defense contractors know about the hospitality biz?
Café 44 in Alexandria, Va., which got its start in 2016 as a “glorified break room” serving military personnel a couple of “squares” at breakfast and lunch, has blossomed into a full-on dining experience, which has breathed new life into the Potomac River waterfront in Alexandria, Va.
Cofounder Jula Jane began Café 44 in 2016 with her partner Keith Coggins of defense contracting company Coggins International. The inspiration was simple: they needed to feed the troops.
“The whole thing started after we relocated the headquarters of Coggins International, a defense contractor, to a new space in Alexandria,” Jane says. “We soon realized there weren’t many casual-dining options in the area to serve our clientele of military personnel, so we opened Café 44 as a glorified breakroom offering breakfast and lunch.”
Today, Café 44 is killing it as a great food option on the Potomac, serving the public all their favorites by day, and at night, a full-service, white-tablecloth experience transforms Café 44 into a hopping hot spot worthy of any great date night. In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand’s Recipe for Success blog, Jula Jane explains.
Q: What an unusual beginning Café 44 had. Please tell us more!
We relocated the headquarters of Coggins International, which is a defense and government contractor training military personnel in accounting software, to a great building on the Potomac in 2014. We’re in a great space with panoramic views. But we realized almost immediately that the area was limited in casual dining options.
So, Keith and I decided to look into offering breakfast and lunch options to our clients, and we pitched the idea to zoning committees as a glorified breakroom serving coffee and sunrise breakfasts like bacon and eggs on a biscuit, and soups, salads, sandwiches, pizza and boxed lunches during the day.
It was a big hit and after I brought my brother in as the general manager and his wife in as the pastry chef, we continued to do so well that we opened to the public a year later.
Q: What exactly is the concept you’re aiming for?
We have two audiences: the tenant audience, which comes from other corporations in our building, as well as our company, which seeks great food at an affordable price. This group wants a good breakfast and strong coffee first thing in the morning. Lunch is also very straight-forwarded and ordered for the tenant who may have a 15-minute window to eat. For them we offer a mobile App they can use to pinpoint the exact time of pickup. This gives them the ability to, for example, to place an order at 10 a.m. on their phone, and pick it up at noon.
We have a secondary corporate audience in catering. These are planned boxed lunches that are made to meet the specific demands of individuals attending corporate meetings. Our menus are highly stylized and include anything from Thai to humas veggie wraps, and they consider all allergies and tastes.
Our second audience is the neighborhood. Since we opened our doors to the public, they come in force. Once the neighborhood found us, they’ve become regulars who we see several times a week.
Q: You’re a bit off the grid for a restaurant. Please explain.
You asked what our biggest obstacle was, and the biggest one is that our building doesn’t allow exterior signage, and it’s locked on the weekends for the security of the tenants, and we’re located on the fourth floor. This is our biggest, ongoing challenge, which we’ve overcome by positioning a hostess at the door to help patrons find us, and we’re making it work for us with a “speak-easy” vibe. We also have a call box that further adds to this feeling, which is actually fun for people.
Q: Once patrons find their way past the unmarked entrance, and up four flights to your door, what awaits them?
As soon as they walk in and see the panoramic view of the Potomac and see our white tablecloths and menu, they say, “I get it!” Our biggest hit is the view. It’s incredible. After they actually find their way here, the community finds all kinds of reasons to return. We have retired couples who sleep late and come in for a late breakfast. And a lot of ladies come in for afternoon lunches or corporate power lunches. The neighborhood also comes in for happy hour and weekend brunch.
From Wednesday through Friday we have an Argentine grill that offers a new dimension to our menu, and on the weekends, it feels like a totally different restaurant. The table is set with white tablecloths and we offer a more leisurely, fine-dining feel to our guests as they sit enjoying the view of Washington Monument from our wraparound terrace.— Café 44 uses Boxerbrand’s iCandy line in its table presentation. Thank you!