Caffé Fresco Creates Comfort Zone In Hampton

Gourmet Shop, Which Opened In '01, Expands Into Former Bib 'N Crib Space

By Susan Morse

The Hampton Union -- Herald Sunday, Sunday, November 24, 2002

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Caffé Fresco owners Sean Kelley and Cara Grasso
stand in the new addition to their store in Hampton
with their three-week-old daughter Morgan.

[Photo by Sarah Zenewicz]

HAMPTON — Patrons at Caffé Fresco sometimes get so comfortable they fall asleep. Co-owner Sean Kelley says one guy in a three-piece suit took an hour-an-a-half nap on the couch by the TV.

It’s understandable: the soft couches, music and lighting as well as the homey feel give customers the impression this is their place.

The inviting atmosphere is not there by accident.

Owners Kelley and Cara Grasso studied numerous gourmet coffee shops before opening their own in the former Gordon Shoe Shop on Lafayette Road in downtown Hampton.

The couple knew they wanted the couches, the television, self- service and a fresh, modern feel that gives the place a look that is frankly different than much of traditional downtown Hampton.

Caffé Fresco opened June 25, 2001. It has been doing so well that Kelley and Grasso are ahead of their business schedule and are expanding into adjacent space formerly occupied by the Bib ‘N Crib shop. The Bib ‘N Crib is still downtown, in a smaller space next door.

Construction workers recently broke through the wall connecting the two rooms and covered the doorway with a sheet, while contractor Angelo Rignoli finishes remodeling. There’s track lighting, an expanded counter, more tables for seating, a glossy, refinished wood floor, soft green-colored tones and the words “Fish” and “Fruit” spelled in colored tile on one wall.

Angelo Rignoli, the building contractor, stands in front
of the mosaic FISH tile in the former Meat department.

[Photo by John M. Holman]

The tile was discovered when old wall board was taken down. It used to line the wall of the Finast grocery store.

The newly expanded Caffé Fresco is expected to open Monday and not a moment too soon. During the busier times of the day, most of the seven or so tables are filled.

Coffee sells. The morning commute business is brisk, says General Manager Liz Hollis. Lunch sales are growing. Now that the weather has turned cold, the fresh pasta is flying off the shell.

There are also deli cases of specialty cheeses, pates and salads, shelves of wine, and jams by Stonewall Kitchens.

Expansion plans include adding more gift baskets and an employee to take food sales to the next level, Kelley says, perhaps even eventually into catering.

One customer asked them, the couple says: “Do you think Hampton is ready for a place like this?”

Downtown Hampton has definitely been more traditional than trendy. The boutiques, the shops specializing in upscale kitchen gear, the cafes, have opened in Exeter and Portsmouth and by- passed downtown Hampton.

Kelley and Grasso also passed up the vacant Gordon Shoe Shop three times before eventually entering into a long-term lease for the space.

They were afraid that lack of parking and a downtown destination spot to bring in pedestrian traffic would be a liability.

Plus, there was already a gathering place across the street at Marelli’s market.

“Marelli’s got a ton of character,” Kelley says, “it’s a great store, the roasted nuts ... there’s some personalities that go in there.”

What they wanted was something different.

“Hampton is a rapidly growing town,” Kelley says. “What we saw, there wasn’t a place in downtown Hampton that was fresh and new.”

Kelley and Grasso decided to create their own destination spot, a place to meet up with friends, a place to go,” Kelley says.

They seem to have accomplished that. Their sales goal for the year just about matched their plan. They employ at least two full-time employees and 10 people part time to handle the growing business.

Home grown Kelley, who grew up in North Hampton and graduated from Winnacunnet High School in 1987, says that when he and Grasso went searching for a place for their new gourmet shop, they knew they wanted to stay close to the southern Seacoast.

They never considered Portsmouth.

Grasso, a 1993 graduate of Amesbury High School in Massachusetts who majored in psychology at Northeastern, was soon on board with the plan.

They opened the shop six months after getting engaged. The couple has been engaged two years now and plan to finally take time off for a wedding in 2003. Yet life got even busier when Grasso gave birth to the couple’s first child last month.

Needless to say, life has been nonstop for the young couple, who also make their home in Hampton.

Kelley attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and was vice president of sales for Joseph’s Gourmet in Haverhill, Mass. He’s worked as a private chef and owned his own pasta company, opening in 1991 a small shop called the Pasta Place on Route 1 in North Hampton, near Marcoda Kennels.

He then moved the business to the building where JB’s Bagel shop was formerly located in North Hampton, selling pasta and sauces.

In the back of his mind was always the idea of opening his own gourmet shop.

As many people do, the couple talked about opening their own business. And then they did something about it. They toured coffee shops all over the region. And they put together a business plan.

We had a good idea of what we didn’t want,” Kelley says.

Et tu Hampton?

The owners of Caffé Fresco knew they wanted something clean, organized and fresh. Customers comment that the shop is a “warm, inviting ... a lounge atmosphere,” they say. And how does this bode for downtown Hampton?

Downtown merchants have told the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce that they want the downtown to be more pedestrian- friendly, says Jude Dionne, who is assistant to the president of the chamber. Right now there is no formal revitalization committee Dionne says, but merchants meet informally to talk.

“It hasn’t come together yet but I think a lot more could be done to make it more shopper-friendly," Dionne says.

“The new gazebo is great for downtown and at least gives it a central location,” Dionne says.

The new business such as Caffé Fresco, Tommy Gone Loco and The Old Salt have helped bring customers to all of downtown. “They seem to be doing a good business,” she says.

[See also related article: Store renovation reveals pieces of 1920-60s grocery]