Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Has Found a New Calling

A couple, a pair of Shiba Inus in tow, orders iced coffees and muffins.

After the women make their exit – the dogs don’t want to leave, even to go to the park — a guy comes in and asks for a coffee and a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Maria’s the owner of the Sunshine Cafe.

His friend arrives moments later and sits at an outdoor table with a black coffee plied with enough sugar to make it as sweet as one of the Danishes he didn’t order.

The next customer at the Sunshine Café, which is painted a neon yellow that’s quite possibly brighter than the actual star, comes in for three of Maria Michael’s colossal tuna sandwiches, which stand six inches high.

Maria, who has been happily working 14-hour shifts seven days a week ever since she opened the café 10 months ago, smiles.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Sunshine Cafe is at 21-76 21st St.

“I don’t use the word ‘tired,’ and I don’t complain,” she says as she brings out trays of homemade baklava and spinach pie. “God gives me the power to get up every day and work, so I do.”

Maria, upbeat and energetic, is happy to have the opportunity to rise at 4:30 each morning and work until 9 or 10 at night.

“I don’t want to be rich – I just want to have a roof over my head,” she says. “It’s always been my dream to buy my own home and a car.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The menu includes homemade baklava and spinach pie.

The Sunshine Café, you see, is a big, bright new beginning for Maria, who is 53, and it’s a far cry from her previous lives.

Most people wouldn’t want to start over mid-life, but Maria has embraced her new venture with astounding optimism.

The youngest of five, Maria grew up in Fez, Morocco, where she was known as Ghitta, a name she shed when she moved to New York.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Maria working the counter.

It was a fairy-tale existence: She hadn’t a care in the world and lived in a 22-room mansion that she calls a castle.

“We are from a royal family,” she says humbly. “We are blue bloods.”

When Maria was 4, her father died, and a decade later when her oldest brother got a job in New York City as a diplomatic lawyer for the Moroccan Embassy, the family followed him.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Maria’s tuna sandwich.

At first, they lived in Flatbush.

Later, they moved to Spanish Harlem.

At 17, Maria got married – yes, she says, she was far too young – and moved with her husband to Jackson Heights.

During this 26-year union, she had five children and worked for a luxury skin-care company, a job she really loved.

“I had a lot of famous customers – Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Maria used to have a career in skin care.

Her divorce, in 2010, devastated her. She lost the house and was forced to move to an apartment in Astoria that her husband owned.

At least, thank God, her children were grown.

“I was shocked,” she says. “I felt like someone kicked me.”

In 2020, she experienced the second greatest shock of her life: She lost her job.

But she found herself.

She decided to start her own business.

“I wanted to sell flowers or cook – I’m a good cook – because I wanted to do something beautiful for people,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Maria’s spinach pie.

After a lot of soul-searching – and crying – she took her savings and opened the Sunshine Café on 21st Street at Ditmars Boulevard.

She has been blessed, she says, by the support of God and of the people in the neighborhood.

She points to the good-luck charms on top of the dessert case.

There is an antique pink and gold teapot from a customer from Puerto Rico; a blue-and-white porcelain cow and turtle from a Russian woman; and a slice of watermelon of an indeterminate substance hand-crafted by a schoolchild who lives nearby.

Her children, too, have been very supportive. One of her sons, in fact, has stopped by to repair the café’s air conditioner.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Maria’s from Morocco.

Maria’s positive philosophy is embodied in the café’s sunny décor.

The interior colors are crisp and bright, the refrigerator has a sticker that keeps reminding her that “success is no accident,” and a large wooden sign over the counter, a gift made by an artist, proclaims JOY in all-capital red letters.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Stop by Sunshine Cafe for a coffee.

Always smiling, Maria’s an ambassador for the happiness she brings to the block.

“Sunshine Café offers hope to everybody,” she says. “It’s a magical place where people connect.”
Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling