In the kitchen at Coffee + Cake, Zaynab Abdullah is dipping donuts in a chai glaze, crowning each with a petite ball of dough.
When she’s finished, she ices the za’atar buns with yogurt.
The cafe specializes in what Zaynab calls homey desserts, the kind of comfort food you nibble at while you’re waking up and sipping your morning coffee.
Buttermilk biscuits. Espresso. Cinnamon rolls. Cappuccino. Cherry Danish. Tea. Chocolate chip cookies.
Coffee + Cake, a small-batch, micro-bakery and coffee café, is a post-Covid culinary creation.
Although it opened in January 2020, lockdowns sidelined it until June of that year, and it really didn’t find its sweet spot until 2021.
The concept, Zaynab says, is simple.
“It’s rare to find a café that serves delicious coffee and delicious desserts,” she says. “My goal was to have a place where you can buy both.”
At the counter, a guy and his dog await their treats.
The human gets a coffee and some cookies; the pit bull orders one of Zaynab’s bone-shaped homemade dog biscuits, which are made of peanut butter, oats and whole-wheat flour and are complimentary to each canine customer.
As the morning progresses, people and pets parade in and out, and Zaynab continues to complete her confections.
For Zaynab, who holds the title of best baker in her family, Coffee + Cake is the culmination of a variety of interests and jobs.
She was born and raised in the Bronx, where she lives with her parents.
Her father is an immigrant from the West Bank; her mother is from Jordan.
“I’m an only child,” she says. “I feel a responsibility to them – you only get one pair. My father is ill, and I’m his primary caregiver.”
But because of her Middle Eastern roots, she’s always felt most at home in Astoria, where she has spent a lot of time.
After Zaynab, a Muslim, graduated from Preston, a private Roman Catholic high school for girls, she took some time off to find out what she wanted to do with her life.
“I’m a late bloomer,” she explains.
Four years later, she enrolled in Columbia University, where, in 2008, she earned a degree in Middle Eastern studies and political science.
“My mom went there at the same time,” she says. “We were the first mother-daughter pair to graduate together. She got a degree in political science, so our fields of study overlapped a little.”
Zaynab, who has made several trips to Jordan and the West Bank, chose her major because she wanted to learn more about her heritage.
But her first job, project manager at an IT company in Farmingdale, Long Island, was about as far from her major as you can get.
“I needed a job and grew to like it, then I grew to hate it,” she says. “I didn’t like being the one yelling at the team to get things done.”
After eight years, she quit and took a job as product developer for an ice cream company in Jordan. While she was there, she also completed culinary school.
Later, as operations director of the company, she oversaw the opening of a store in Los Angeles in one in New York City.
In the summer of 2019, she started working on Coffee + Cake, figuring she could keep her corporate job while running it.
But things didn’t work out quite the way she planned.
The month after Coffee + Cake opened, the pandemic forced the ice cream company to shut down its U.S. stores, and Zaynab lost her full-time job.
The next month, the lockdowns closed Coffee + Cake, too.
“In the beginning, because of Covid, there were some really tough days,” Zaynab says. “It’s still hard – we’re open six days a week, and I’m here all six. It’s 10-hour days. It’s grueling because you are on your feet all the time.”
In 2021, there was an additional challenge: Zaynab missed a month of work because she had a kidney infection that required her to be hospitalized for two weeks.
Her staff –in addition to her, there’s a barista and a baker who helps out – kept the café open without interruption.
The cafe, which also makes pies and custom cakes as well as sandwiches, is not a job, Zaynab insists; it’s a joy.
“What I do puts a smile on people’s faces,” she says. “My reward is repeat customers who tell me how wonderful the café is.”
And creating a sense of community, that’s what Coffee + Cake really is all about.
“It’s not just about business,” Zaynab says. “It’s about growing roots.”
She hands a free biscuit to one of her four-legged customers and gives him a pat on the head.
He – and she – know he’ll be back soon.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling