French Attitude in Raleigh

May 25, 2018

Going to France again is at the top of my To Do List. I want to roam the whole country, explore it, stop by all the city and town meeting places and enjoy a croissant, coffee, crepe, salad, or sandwich. Lite fare but satisfying and healthy. So, when I discovered Sosta Cafe in Raleigh in the shadow of a growing technology superstar, Red Hat, tucked almost unnoticeably beneath their 27 billion dollar market cap, my curiosity piqued because of the signage placed artfully throughout the room. One read “Chocolat,” another “Avignon,” and the largest, a blue one with white letters, “AGENCE GENERAL DES CYCLES REINE DES CHAMPS.” Large red capped letters rest atop a bookcase, “CAFE.” The word “cafe” is French. Cafe means, “A French pub.”

    The French signage was not the only thing that reeled me into the atmosphere. I find art interesting like most people. And the eclectic artwork, paintings, and photographs from various local artists draping Sosta’s tall walls reached out and touched me.

    When I returned to the front door, I discovered my wife and kids had seated themselves at one of the sidewalk tables and waved them inside. Then I noticed Sosta’s hours of operation posted on the front door: 8-4 M-F; 10-3 on Saturday. Now that’s “French attitude!” A taste of European life-work balance in the heart of one of America’s fastest-growing cities where the only other places I recall that express their values by their work schedule are Chick Fil A (“Fil A” is French with a Southern twist) and Hobby Lobby which a New York Times writer said had infiltrated the Big Apple with Christian values by remaining closed on Sundays. Well, Raleigh, no less cosmopolitan, has been infiltrated by French values! In America, it’s all good.

    We went to the counter, and my wife and I ordered our favorite latte: extra shot, almond milk, and vanilla. The owner, Jerome Lauck, a middle-aged, bearded man who spoke perfect English but with a mild French accent plugged the details into the computer, and then my wife stepped up and asked a question, “Can you make hearts on the top of your Lattes and Expressos?”

    Jerome laughed a little and answered with a smile, “I can try. But I tend to be more abstract.”

    As my family and I waited for our drinks and food, I noticed just how literal Jerome meant “abstract” as I perused the shelves and walls and bookcases filled with artifacts, games, and toys decorating the thousand square foot room packed comfortably with small tables with chairs and cozy couches.

    “Sosta” means “Take a break,” in Italian. Or, used in a sentence, “avere un attimo di sosta,” it says, “to have a moment's rest.” It’s a great place to go if you need internet access and want to get some work done before the lunch rush hour.

    Before we sat down, my youngest son noticed a pair of skis at the end of a display case. He and I spent many days in the mountains of Killington, Vermont before we moved to Raleigh from New England. At our home, in his bedroom, is a framed colorful poster by Roger Broders titled “CHEMINS DE FER D’ALSACE ET DE LORRAINE.” It commemorates the ski socials on the snow-covered slopes of the Alps as they wait their turn to descend. The caption at the bottom reads, “SPORTS D’HIVER DANS LES VOSGES LA VALLEE DE MUNSTER ET LE HOHNECK.”

    Jerome explains, “I grew up skiing in France. They are my skis. And up there is the T2000 version of my tennis racket. I used the French brand, not Jimmy Connor’s version. But both were very difficult to control if you missed the sweet spot.”

    We realized our visit to Sosta Cafe delivered more than the value of a moment’s rest, delicious food and beverage, or exceptional service. Still, people choose their places to eat based on whether the food is excellent. So, being uninhibited, I tactfully quizzed a few patrons.

    Stan Toporek who works at Red Hat said, "I haven't found food this good since I visited Europe."

    Another customer named Tyler from a competing tech company, Pivot, said, “I love it because every dish is made fresh.”

    Later, I asked Jerome.

    “The food is more popular than the coffee,” Jerome said.

    My wife and I ordered “Sampler” (Couscous, chickpea salad, cannelloni bean, tuna salad, chicken salad, tomatoes). And to say we enjoyed it is an understatement! It can also be made vegan since Sosta specializes in vegan dishes. Our three teenage sons enjoyed “The Ultimate Cheese Sandwich” (blend of four kinds of cheese melted on ciabatta with tomatoes and arugula), “Guido” (Roast beef, gorgonzola, caramelized onions, arugula on ciabatta bread), and our vegetarian son ordered “Riviera” (Fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil pesto on ciabatta bread).

    The excellent service and food are accompanied by the warm, abstract feeling created by the rich, vibrant display of eclectic artwork and artifacts. All at a reasonable price! A large Latte even made with almond milk and vanilla, is only about five bucks. And the drink’s delicious flavor is due to Jerome’s crafting it according to the actual recipe found in Barista training manuals rather than the Starbuck’s version (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

    “The only thing I dislike about Starbucks,” quips Jerome Lauck, “because I love competition, is that people come in here and order a macchiato and claim I don’t know what I’m doing when I don’t serve it in a twelve-ounce cup. At Sosta we serve authentic-recipes. I’m always very friendly as I explain that. No problem. People enjoy authentic food and like to learn something new. They really do.”

    I wondered about the “why” behind Sosta. Did Jerome set out on a mission when he entered the restaurant business?

    Jerome Lauck purchased the cafe in 2006 from a techie who knew nothing about coffee or food or customer service. After a few months delivered too few customers to give him confidence, Jerome took over to allow the techie to go back to his first love, computers. Since then, Jerome has been on a roller coaster ride. The first year was great. Lots of customers, good community response. Jerome had bought the cafe as a partnership between him and his Italian friend. But in 2008, his business partner decided to sell his half to Jerome. On the morning Jerome signed the papers to buy his partner out and assume exclusive responsibility for the business in 2007, Duke Energy announced they would move Progress Energy (which they had purchased), Sosta’s most significant source of customers, to Charlotte. A period of uncertainty began that nearly forced him to close. But he stuck with it. Why? “It’s my mission in life. Serve people good food, good drinks, at reasonable prices in a comfortable and welcoming place. Sosta is like my home.”

    Since Red Hat arrived, especially as the company’s renovation was completed and it grew more fully staffed, business stabilized. 2017 was Sosta’s best year as the economy boomed and the reputation of his commitment and service to Raleigh’s downtown community spread.

    Jerome looked around the cafe and explained warmly, “I want to share my life with others. I intentionally keep my prices down, enough to make what I need to survive and pay my three employees because I want to share my life. It’s a sacrifice. Look around, and this place tells you my life story. Look up there at the Mickey Mouses next to the portrait of my parents: these are toys I played with as a boy. The telephone on the counter is from my family’s home. And I keep the artwork of locals on consignment because I love art. Above the windows, I placed the Coca-Cola signs because it represents in my mind the American Dream for all people. I love my life. I don’t wake up in the morning and tell my fiancé and my daughter I’m going to work. I say, “I’m going to Sosta.” For twelve years I have never once felt like I’ve had to go to work because I love people. I met my fiancé here. Nearly all of my closest friends I met here. Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard work. We work hard. But it doesn't’ feel like that.”

    The most thrilling moment of Sosta’s history intersected with Jerome’s life in America in 2017 when his lease was officially up with Red Hat. Red Hat had received reassurance from the doctor’s office next store to Sosta that they would pay for space if Sosta moved elsewhere. Red Hat contemplated the doctor office’s proposal and informed Jerome of the possibility that he might have to move.

    “I worried a little. I wanted to stay. But it wasn’t up to me.”

    Then more than four hundred Red Hat employees sent an e-mail to Red Hat’s management team saying, “Please keep Jerome there. We love him. We love Sosta Cafe!”

    On the same day in 2017 that Red Hat renewed his lease, Jerome received what he had sought for many, many years: U.S. Citizenship! “That was a good day,” Jerome said. The French immigrant’s dreams all came true that day! His love for America and Raleigh and his family all paid off!

    “I am part of the city. I have a fifteen-year-old daughter. This is our home. Sosta is also my family. I treat visitors like family. If someone orders a drink and realizes they forgot their wallet, I ask them to catch me later. Sometimes I’ll reward a frequent guest with a surprise free drink. I don’t do the “frequent purchase rewards cards” because I keep my prices reasonable. This is my life here not a business, really. I mean the business has to make money so I can live and I can pay my employees, but I’m not a businessman. I don’t consider myself a businessman. I don’t think so. I don’t think any of my friends would say, ‘Jerome is a businessman.’”

    “Are you a Barista?” I asked.

    “No!” Jerome replied and smiled warmly. “When I started this, it was all about the food. But I didn’t have a vision of what I would be in a decade or anything like that. My partner was Italian, and for him, it was all about the expresso. But I insisted on a vegan selection because for me vegan dishes sounded good. But I didn’t do any market research or anything like that. I’m not a Vegan. I believe in moderation of all food. But now our vegan food business is quite large. People are very health conscious and want to stay fit and thin and strong. We offer non-vegan food, too. There’s nothing wrong with non-vegan food except to the Vegan. As far as the coffee drinks, I do them by the book. Just the way Baristas are trained in barista schools. I’ve learned along the way and can make anything.”

    As I reflect and enjoy my coffee today at Sosta, I recall my first foray into French things: my first car. I bought it after arriving at my U.S. Navy duty station in Newport, RI after I graduated from college. A white Peugeot 505 Turbo GLE. Reflecting on it feels like history, almost childhood in a way, the innocence and happiness of small things and places and relationships to be cherished. My latest is breakfast with my wife this morning again at Sosta Cafe located at 130 E Davie Street to the left of the main entrance to Red Hat. Viva la Sosta Cafe!

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1109 North West St, Raleigh, NC 27603