As Ahwatukee residents eagerly await the grand opening of The Kolache Cafe, slated originally for late September and then rescheduled for early October, their calendar notifications require resetting yet again.
And no one is more disappointed than the owners of Arizona’s only kolache restaurant, Jose and Bebe Leal.
The Arizona natives have been trying to open their new business, The Kolache Cafe, in Ahwatukee for months.
“We had planned our grand opening for Oct. 9-11 but now we’re looking at the first week in November,” said Jose. “We started the process right before COVID-19, and that complicated things a bit, and, frankly, it’s been a bit longer process than we’d anticipated.”
“It’s very frustrating, for sure, but it’s not just us dealing with this,” he said. “It takes a lot to get a business started and the pandemic didn’t help. But we’re moving forward and trying to keep a positive attitude.”
Forward progress for their first business as a couple came to a halt just as it was getting off the ground.
“We started in mid-March and there was a little talk about COVID but there were no shutdowns or advisories on it yet. Shortly after we signed the lease for the property, the shutdowns started which delayed the project probably two months,” recalled Leal. “The permitting took nine weeks. It’s been challenging.”
And there was much to do at the property at 4302 E. Ray Road, which had formerly housed a Washington Mutual bank branch. That alone required the removal of a substantially-sized bank vault.
The total transformation from a bank to a restaurant proved to be labor- and time-intensive. More than 50 pages of dog-eared interior and exterior site plans, plumbing and heating and other necessary remodeling steps comprise a testament to the months the Leal’s spent planning their new venture.
It’s worth it all, predict Jose and Bebe Leal, who met as children in Nogales, Arizona, living a house away from each other but not really connecting until years later.
They’ve been married six years and have a blended family with seven children ranging from 4 to 19.
And what is driving them enough to handle all the heavy work and disappointing time set-backs?
Their product. Kolaches are sweet or savory puffs of dough with roots in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Neither Jose nor Bebe are eastern European.
But while they were living in Houston, Texas, – where he was employed in a corporate position – they encountered their first kolaches.
“Kolaches are such a staple in Houston,” proffered Jose. “I’d never even heard of them. Once we tried them, our family was hooked, we’d have them a couple times a month.”
And that is what the Leals hope will happen here.
During the summer, they rented a commercial kitchen space and began offering them for sale online.
The enthusiastic response was enough to convince them their research and planning to open Arizona’s first restaurant dedicated to kolaches was on point.
“We tested the product and had people order online with delivery only. We’ve sold out every weekend,” said Leal of his Friday-Sunday endeavors. “We feel really optimistic about our venture.”
For those not quite sure what the fuss is about, traditional kolaches – from the Slovac word “Kolo” or circle – are a sweet, fluffy dough with an indentation cradling sweet fruit jams, cheese and poppy seed paste.
The U.S. kolache morphed into both sweet and savory offerings.
For instance, recent offerings of The Kolache Cafe included smoked sausage and jalapeno, chorizo egg and cheese and chicken with Swiss cheese – all wrapped in dough rather than served open face.
Sweet offerings include fall specials like the pumpkin cheesecake kolache.
“Our head baker Claudette Snow uses a combination of some family recipes and updated ones,” explained Leal. “They’re not only delicious, but easy to eat on the go – no plates, no cutlery. And you can basically put anything on it.
“The secret is the dough and we make the yeast dough fresh daily, let it rise and then wrap it like a little present.”
Once the storefront opens at 4302 E. Ray Road, diners will be able to watch the kolaches being made fresh daily through a large window.
The Kolache Cafe is partnering with neighboring Buzzed Goat Coffee Company, offering their fresh roasted coffee and specialty drinks. The Leals also are catering their kolaches.
Bebe Leal said with all the disappointing delays, the community has rallied to encourage them.
“We’ve already had tremendous support from the community of Ahwatukee. They’ve been absolutely amazing,” she said. “What better place to start a business?”
The couple plan to repay the community once they get their doors open.
“We look forward to getting involved in the community; we’ve already hired 10 students from Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe,” said Bebe Leal.
Preparations for opening include steps to keep employees and diners safe.
“It has been challenging with COVID but we are pushing forward and we’ll implement safety measures and protocols to ensure that we protect our customers and employees,” said Jose Leal.
“One thing we’re doing that I’ve not seen elsewhere is what I call the ‘Safety Indicator’ that we’ll place on all tables. It’s just an object that has red on one end and green on the other.
“When a customer sits to eat, they’ll be prompted that once they finish, they flip the indicator to red, letting other customers and the staff that the table needs to be properly cleaned. Once cleaned by the staff, they will flip it to green letting customers know that it has been cleaned. That’s just one measure of many we’re taking to keep everyone safe.”
Jose pointed out that there are annual kolache festivals throughout the United States.