Amid the “for rent signs” and boarded up shop windows that line Grand Avenue in Baldwin, the Sweet and Savory Café sticks out. The quaint coffee shop, nestled between a pub and an abandoned store, is draped in light blue and cream curtains and table cloths, welcoming coffee-lovers from all over Long Island. The café’s menu blend of sweetened chocolate and cinnamon coffees mixed in with savory lunch plates, such as barbeque chicken and fontina bowls, keeps customers scratching their heads but always coming back for more. The curvy lettering of the front sign catches the eye and for many people driving down Grand Avenue, it’s a rare sight. Some passerby’s even get out of their cars to take a better look.
“This was the dream,” said Owner Antoinette Burrows-Porter, a former financial consultant at a private company in Melville and a chef’s granddaughter who’d always wanted to open her own restaurant. “It was an opportunity, she said. “So I decided to go for it.”
Burrows-Porter faced tough odds: In the last decade, Grand Avenue in Baldwin has fallen on hard times. But with a combination of consistency and a strong business plan, Sweet and Savory became a hip suburban spot that has beaten the odds, setting a model for future store fronts: How to beat the Grand Avenue curse.
Once a central shopping district, the strip was pummeled by the 2008 financial crisis and passed up in the recovery, leaving it full of blighted, abandoned buildings today.
Poor infrastructure has further deterred businesses: Parking is much tighter in Baldwin’s Main Street-style downtown than in a modern shopping center. As a result, many stores have moved off Grand Avenue to those malls and other locations on Merrick Road.
“Baldwin is cursed by the age of its commercial corridor,” said Erik Mahler, president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Nassau County is performing a street study of the area, expected to be complete in the next year, to examine how traffic flows affect people passing through downtown.
What’s more, a covert underground dam has affected pipes, plumbing and building infrastructure, said Erin King Sweeney, Hempstead’s 5th District councilwoman and huge advocate for the area.
“Every single person in Baldwin has told me the same story,’’ said Sweeney. “We need development on Grand Avenue.”
“Once an area is known as blighted, it’s hard to fight it,” she added. “But at some point you have to plant a flag and say it’s time for a change. You can’t have empty downtowns.”
Burrows-Porter, a Bahamas native who has lived in Baldwin for 13 years, had been working in finance for over a decade when her firm moved to North Carolina. She saw it as her chance.
She took the task seriously: Enrolling in small business workshops to learn about supply and demand for the area, doing a lot of research on coffee beans, and visiting trendy cafes in SoHo and Brooklyn.
She saved for about three years and in early 2014 she invested $300,000 into the café, carefully mapping out her menu and asking for input on colors and other aspects from community members through a Facebook forum.
She finally bought the mid-block spot on the corner of Grand Avenue and Merrick Road in March 2014, taking almost another nine months to gut the space and design custom furniture, lighting and wall décor.
Today, frequent customers are drawn to the menu specifically for the smores hot chocolate, which sells for $5.50 a mug. They say the dessert drink is both delicious and unique; something they can’t quite get from a nearby Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks.
Overall sales are up, according to Burrows-Porter. Although a new Starbucks is opening down the road from her shop, she said she isn’t worried about the competition. She hopes the “foot travel” from the franchise will bring customers to her own shop.
And it just might set an example for other Grand Avenue businesses to follow, said Mahler.
The Baldwin Chamber of Commerce has built community gardens all around Baldwin, installing ‘Welcome to Beautiful Baldwin’ signs along the strip and near the train station and working with the city’s Code Enforcement Department to make sure all current businesses are maintaining code.
“I am a strong believer in the simple motto, ‘if you build it, they will come,’” Mahler said.