You probably don’t know Ketan Patel, but he is the owner of Village Coffee — one of the most iconic retail establishments in the heart of Maplewood Village. While many restaurants, boutiques and the like have come and gone, Village Coffee has been happily serving customers at the same location since 1993.
Getting Ketan to open up about his business’s longevity is no easy feat since he is an extremely humble individual. If you patronize the coffee shop, you wouldn’t even know he was the owner. He is behind the counter filling orders just like everyone else. He is not a self-promoter, nor makes himself the face of the brand. He believes the food and service should stand on their own and that’s why he doesn’t even have a head shot I can post here.
So how does an immigrant from the State of Gujarat India, educated in Canada, without any previous restaurant experience, create a thriving success in the bucolic village of Maplewood, NJ?
In a word – his humility, or as he put it, “I don’t drive a Mercedes.”
Ketan’s business philosophy, in many ways, contrasts with the profit-driven model used by large, publicly traded corporations. He believes in a “shared” or “team” philosophy. He makes sure each person in the business feels invested in its success. That’s why he hires high-quality employees. To attract and retain top-notch talent he says he pays his employees very well. If that means he nets less profit for himself and his family, then they are okay with driving a Chrysler.
By treating and paying his staff well, Ketan’s employees are, in turn, loyal to Katen and the Village Coffee customers. There’s something really nice about going to your local coffee spot and being greeted with a warm hello by a familiar face. At Village Coffee that face is almost always Kiki, and she has been greeting customers with her vivacious smile for 15 years.
The feeling at Village Coffee kind of reminds me of “Cheers,” the popular sitcom from the 1990s. Cheers was a fictionalized Boston pub where a cast of odd characters gathered daily for an after work beer. It was so popular because “everyone knew your name,” as it said in the title theme song.
Ketan took over Village Coffee from its previous owners who had started it in 1992 and decided to call it quits after only a year. He saw an ad in the newspaper for the business and drove up from Princeton to take a look. The coffee craze had not yet reached the East Coast, let alone New Jersey suburbs, but Ketan had a good feeling about the spot, the other businesses in town and decided to take the plunge and buy it.
For the first four years the business did not turn a profit, which meant no salary for Ketan. But he remained optimistic because he felt that if he worked hard, studied recipes and menus from other restaurants, he could get it right. And that’s just what he did.
Over the years Ketan expanded the food items and made Village Coffee a must for breakfast and lunch (the previous owners just served baked goods). He even added some traditional Indian dishes as part of the lunch menu. The most popular items on the menu currently at Village Coffee are:
- The Signature Omelet – there are 18 combinations to choose from and each comes with a side of toast and home fries or mixed greens for $8.95
- Huevos Rancheros – 2 flour tortillas, filled with chorizo, refried black beans, Mexican 3 cheeses, topped with two over easy eggs, side of salsa and sour cream. It also comes with choice of home fries or mixed greens for $9.95
- Lemongrass Chai Tea – an unusual and delicious combination of tea with fresh ginger, lemongrass and turmeric. It has only been on the menu for 8 months and has already become a best seller.
Ketan, his wife and kids live in Princeton, NJ. When I asked him about the long, daily commute, he said that considering India is 10,000 miles from New Jersey, traveling another 50 miles every day wasn’t much of a hardship. He said it was well worth it considering it afforded him the opportunity to own a thriving business and to give his family a good life.
So what does the future hold for Village Coffee? Ketan hopes to continue owning the business for many years to come and to perhaps one day pass it on to his four children. I asked him what type of impact he expects from the opening of a Starbucks in Maplewood next year. He said they have wanted into the Village for a long time and had actually approached him many times to sell his spot to them. After all, it is in an enviable location, has exposed brick walls and just the right amount of space. Nothing ever came of it, because they never came up with a good enough offer.
While many Maplewood residents oppose Starbucks opening in town since it is a “chain” store and they feel it is not in keeping with the hominess of the village, Ketan is actually optimistic about their arrival. He said he thinks it will actually be good for his business. In his view, it will bring more customers to Village Coffee because Starbucks doesn’t serve food. And once these new customers come for the food, they will be hooked and return for the coffee as well.
Village Coffee is at 164 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood, NJ 07040
Tel. # (973) 762-6660
What is “Home Grown”?
I don’t know about you, but I am always bowled over by the incredibly interesting people I meet who reside in South Orange and Maplewood. When I speak with friends in neighboring towns and other areas of New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island and Connecticut they are equally as bowled over by the notable people who choose to make their lives here and the incredible contributions they make to the community.
That’s why I am writing the blog series titled “Home Grown.” In it, I profile South Orange and Maplewood residents who are having a measurable impact in their professional and personal lives including the arts, education, social justice, public service, parenting, innovative entrepreneurs, etc.
An important component of what makes these people notable is how different their backgrounds are, where they come from, and how they landed in SOMA. There will not be a financial component to being profiled in “Home Grown.”
If you or someone you know may be right for participation I welcome your recommendations. Please email me at email@example.com.