If you live in Bakersfield, CA, Cafe Smitten no stranger to your ears. Open less than one year they’ve stirred up so much attention. It sure had my attention even before their doors opened. After visiting several times (sometimes twice a day-no joke!) I started to see something beyond the super cool cafe. I wanted to know more about the owners, the owners that walked around picking up plates and greeting others like they were just part of the staff. Who were they, and how did they come up with such a cool concept…and why did they bring this to Bakersfield??? For months I thought I would build up enough nerve to ask if they would sit and have a heart to heart with me and months later….I finally did. From their love story, to the building of this dream, to coffee and food, and culture and community….here is their story…Shai Bitten + Stasie Smith….Smith, Bitten =Smitten! (aha!)
Love was Brewing
2009, “It was love at first sight,” says Shai after meeting Stasie at a New Years Eve party in New York. Stasie was visiting her sister in NY while living in San Francisco. She met Shai this particular night and it was a night that would surely shift her forever. After meeting, they continued to talk and eventually built a long distance relationship. Shai operating restaurants and Stasie attending school in their own cities. After only six months they decided to morph their lives together and Stasie made the big move to the big apple! Stasie born and raised in Bakersfield CA always knew that NY was not a permanent home for them, she knew that one day they would move to California. They attempted that move and lived in California for 5 months before deciding they’d made a huge mistake and headed on back to their life as usual in New York.
Building the Dream
We all need to stop and thank Bob, Stasie’s dad, because maybe without him most of us would not be experiencing Cafe Smitten unless we were in NY. Owning a cafe was a dream of Shai’s since he fell in love with the idea of the business after working for a coffee shop in NY city. The dream of Cafe Smitten developed in time between Shai and Stasie and it was meant to happen in NY. Just like any loving father, Bob had a desire to see his family closer. He saw potential in a property he owned and gently insisted that this might be the right location for Cafe Smitten. So during a holiday visit, Shai and Stasie thought they’d check out the location. There stood nothing but an empty grungy shell. A building that was standing there for 100 years and had not been occupied for about 25 years. It was supposed to be completely demolished and there were supposed to be apartments built on that property. Much to their surprise, they fell in love with the space. “When we walked into the space, it felt right,” said Shai. Upon returning to NY they began to sketch out the design and plan for this building. Ten months later, they relocated to Bakersfield expecting that this amazing dream would come to pass 6 months later. But it was after two long and very stressful years later that they were finally able to bring everything up to code and see Cafe Smitten come to life! When I asked Shai and Stasie how they were able to overcome so much stress and wait time as a family (since they had now also become first time parents during that time) they said “We were excited about it, and that’s what kept us going, we just continued to fix our eyes on the big picture. We didn’t know what to expect, but we did know we were building something great.”
The Building: Details, Art, and Preservation
“What we were trying to do is to really preserve the history of this 100 year old building,” said Shai. It was easier and cheaper to tear down the building and start all over but instead they put in the resources and the time to bring the building back into its original condition the best that they could.
“For several weeks we discussed all the nitty gritty details. Everything was so important to both of us. Every detail was intense. Like the two photos hanging above that area (Stasie pointed at a station where they serve water), it took two hours to decide what looked good and felt right (they giggled). There was a lot of back and forth between Stasie and I, we must’ve sat on one hundred chairs before we decided on what chairs were right for our customers. We even brought our families to sit on the chairs and made sure it felt right to each one of them,” the Bittens.
Several of us have stood before them capturing a pic, or placed our kids in front of them….the wing art wall painted by local artist Jennifer Cordova. Stasie went to explain to me the concept of this art. They knew they wanted to create a wall that would inspire people to take pictures but they wanted it to have meaning and purpose. The wings are a mesh of a concept of bring coffee to Bakersfield. On the left wing you will notice details from top to bottom of how coffee is processed. From the mountains to the bushes and berries, to harvesting, all the way to the roasting, into coffee bags and then poured into your cup. On the right wing you’ll find details about Bakersfield, like the mountains, to the valleys, the suburban homes to Kern River, a little bit of downtown and the California poppy. What a beautiful detail.
The beautiful farm table that sits nestled underneath the stunning fabricated lanterns was created by a friend in Oregon who cut a douglas fur tree that was over 100 years old from his vineyard. He personally delivered this beautiful table to Cafe Smitten from Oregon and it sits as a welcoming table for family and friends to gather like one you would find inside of a home.
Two gigantic barn doors stand tall and proud on the back wall of the inside of the building. These barn doors are original doors to the building and were sand blasted, resealed and repurposed and are now mounted and create an artistic yet historic feeling to that wall.
The ceilings were covered with panels and once removed it exposed beautiful trusses. They repurposed them and left them exposed.
The brick walls were also original to the building. Over time they were painted white so they scraped all of the white paint off in order to reveal its original beauty. There was a huge restoration process that went into the brick walls as the walls were slowly crumbling throughout time.
There is a long white wall that leads us out towards the back of the building that has interesting vinyl decals. Stasie’s brother (owner of The Smith Factory in Oregon), whom also created and fabricated the incredible lanterns, created the same pattern that is on the lanterns onto vinyl in order to tie in the lanterns and the wall decals. The glossy white on top of the flat painted white wall is a very cool and interesting feature. I must say that the lanterns were most definitely one of my favorite decor items in that building. What an absolutely stunning feature.
The bar face has the original reclaimed wood from the building. Shai removed a “million nails” on it. It took about a week in 100 degree summer weather for all of it to be removed. It was that important to Shai and Stasie to preserve as many original elements as possible.
The bench that sits outside in the front of the coffee shop was designed by the Bittens and then created by a local carpenter. A bench they both agree has now become their outdoor office. “It’s where we stop and talk about little mishaps or recap on things going on,” say the Bittens.
Product: Coffee + Food +Sweets
It wasn’t enough for the Bittens to create a beautiful and fun space. It was very important to them to bring value in everything they sold. From the coffee, to the food, to the pastries by GhilaDolci Bakery, it all had to have value and heart. They found that living in NY and experiencing a high level of quality helped them bring that level of excellence to Bakersfield.
Finding the right coffee was an intense process. They tried so much coffee during that time in order to find the right one. Being huge fans of Counter Culture’s coffee product and knowledge of coffee, they decided to reach out to them. Counter Culture is not a company that you just simply contact and ask if they want to partner, they call you, shall you ever be so lucky. So when the Bittens say they are fortunate enough to work with Counter Culture, they mean it! They agreed to meet in Bakersfield, the Bittens flew in from NY and Counter Culture came in from LA, they presented the vision and the location and they agreed to allow Cafe Smitten to represent their brand. How glorious.
The amazing food is all of Shai’s creations. It is all a part of who he is, a little bit of NY and Isreal on a dish to Bakersfield, CA. Stasie helped to make sense of it in a recipe form since Shai doesn’t believe in measuring. “He had to make every single dish in our kitchen and we were typing up every single detail by detail to make the recipe book. It was a funny process because I had to try to convert his pinches of salt or his random cups into a measurement,” says Stasie. “My mom is a great chef, and learning from her is a good and a bad thing, because everything was in her mind and repetitive pattern. There was no recipe or conversion. So Stasie had to just follow me and look at what I was doing and try to make sense of it all. I hate measuring!” said Shai. I dared to ask them what their favorite dish was and this was their response, “I could say the avocado smash, mushroom omelette, the moroccan eggs, I’m not going to give you just one because they’re all my favorite,” says Shai. Stasie on the other hand didn’t have a problem sharing her favorite “I think the moroccan eggs, it’s a special dish because it’s something that he would make on Saturday morning way back when, it comes from his culture and his mom and dad.” They both agreed that the avocado smash is the most popular within the community, and a personal favorite of mine as well! My kids absolutely favor the Nutella toast.
“We didn’t know what to expect or who was going to come, I hadn’t lived in Bakersfield since high school, and we just didn’t know who our customer would be. Cafe Smitten does have a very hipster vibe to it, but it certainly doesn’t define us. We see so many different people walk through our doors everyday: like moms with babies, business people, elderly people, and the hipster with the laptop. I have one customer who has to be about 80 years old , her name is Kay, she comes in every week for her dark chocolate molten cake. I think that’s the sweetest thing that this space really transcends age. This is what we hoped would happen, that this lovely 80 year old lady would come in and feel comfortable while she’s sitting next to the hipster with the laptop or the mommy with the baby. This is a cafe for everyone and we always hope that everyone feels comfortable,” said Stasie.
“Right now Smitten for us is more than just owning a coffee shop, it’s more like falling in love with Bakersfield and seeing the opportunity that is here and building something great for this community.” Bittens
I interviewed a few people that were sitting there enjoying meals, a cup of coffee, or the amazing pastries. It wasn’t worth me individually sharing each story because it was clear across the board why every single one of them loved Cafe Smitten. From a mom with her baby on a mommy date with her friend, to a group of three friends catching up on life, to a group of six ladies out on an extended lunch break all the way from Lamont, to a man sitting with a book outside, to a man sitting by the the large windows looking out into the streets of Bakersfield. They all love this place and most of them come at least once a week. They are fans of the atmosphere and generous people that work there. They enjoy the delicious coffee being served and the amazing food. They also swear on the cookies. I happen to share this same perspective with all of these people. It was a joy to see the interactions amongst this little community inside of Cafe Smitten on a random Monday morning.
Meet some of the staff at Cafe Smitten!
Sarajoy has been working at Cafe Smitten since the location opened. She knew she wanted to work there immediately after hearing about it because she’s obsessed with coffee and cute coffee shops! Sarajoy’s favorite part about working at Cafe Smitten is the strong relationships she has built with customers that come in.
Lauren is another staff member at Cafe Smitten who has been here since the beginning. She is a local here in Bakersfield and feels that Cafe Smitten has helped bring more business to downtown Bakersfield. “Downtown Bakersfield used to be the center of everything and somewhere along the way it lost its value, but it is great to see life coming back to downtown,” says Lauren.
Justin has been working for Cafe Smitten for about four months now. He found it fitting to work here after working in the coffee business for quite a while. He appreciates coming to work at a cool space everyday and feeling like he stepped outside of Bakersfield for a while and into a big city.
A Final Heart to Heart from the Bittens
Here are a few final questions I asked Shai and Stasie.
What would you tell other entrepreneurs that are in the position you were a few years back before you could physically see your dream come to pass…when it was just that, a dream?
“You just have to have a gut feeling. A deep instinct. I think the correct word would be…confidence. You just have to have incredible confidence and you have to maintain that confidence through the ups and downs.”
“Do not compromise. We did not compromise on the vision. When things got hard we didn’t do it half way just to save money or time. We stayed true to our vision and concept regardless of what came our way.”
Standing before your dream now…how does it feel to see it and touch it every single day?
“We want to do more,” says Shai while Stasie says she’s enjoying the breath. “I am ready to go on to the next, and do another Smitten and other ideas,” says Shai. “He’s always scheming and dreaming,” says Stasie, “he’s the creative mind.” “I get a lot of reward when people appreciate it and it makes me eager to do more. We have a lot of ideas and things brewing (get it). Being a family and entrepreneur is hard but we have a lot of support and we have a passion to enrich Bakersfield,” says Shai.
What would you like your customers to know?
“We want them to always feel like this is a place where they belong. A place where they can pause and enjoy the moment. This is our goal, this is what we want this place to be. Neutral and so welcoming. If you’d ever come to our house, you would quickly see that we have a heart for hospitality and serving- we would most likely offer you a good meal and something to drink. Cafe Smitten is exactly that, our home, and you are always welcomed in our home.”
A closing from Rubi Z
I really want to thank the Bittens for taking time to share their heart with me. For allowing me to share their story with the world. I hope that when you walk into Cafe Smitten from this point on, you’ll see beyond the beautiful decor and delicious coffee, but that you’ll take the time to see the heart and soul behind everything that Shai and Stasie created and continue to establish daily. On this national coffee day, I want to say one last thing, “I can’t expresso how much you bean to me!” Thanks for reading. xoxoxo -Rubi Z