Camila’s Cafe Competes on New Frontier

By Jack Goodman

Photo credit: Jack Goodman

Red Hook, Brooklyn — When Fady Mandour took over Camila’s Cafe two years ago, it was a boarded up shop on a strip of old row houses. He first spotted it from a car window and moved in a week later.

The crooked lettering and cartoonish painting of a cup of coffee is the first thing one sees after passing the entrance to the ten-lane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway onto Columbia Street. Further along, a sidewalk menu with ‘Cappuccino, Latte and Espresso’ etched in pastel shades of yellow, green and blue comes into view.

Fady Mandour, who goes by Freddy, is the owner of Camila’s, this upmarket café in Red Hook. Freddy had worked in cafes since he moved from Egypt to the United States over thirty years ago. Finally, in his late fifties, his days of working for other people were over.

“Now I have no dream,” he said. “I just want to make a living for the rest of my life,” he added.

But it was never going to be simple to make Camila’s Café a success for Freddy and his business partner and son Tarek. Columbia Street is far removed from Red Hook’s trendy and well-developed commercial hub, locally known as ’the front’. Without a local bus stop or subway station, this part of Red Hook has never attracted the type of upscale clientele Camila’s Café aspires to. Freddy has gambled, as retirement beckons, to build the family business he had always dreamed of as a younger man.

From Jackson Heights to East New York, entrepreneurs in many economically marginal neighborhoods in New York City risk it all to profit from the lower rents and less competition in areas at the frontier of economic change. It’s one of the oldest stories in New York, but it’s only the survivors who get remembered. These were pioneers who succeeded because they had the business nous to think on their feet and make things work out under rapidly changing circumstances. “I’ve also seen the sad part of it where places have been forced out because of high rents in neighborhoods that they helped grow and develop,” said Robert Walsh, the former Small Business Commissioner for New York City.

For small business owners like Freddy everything hinges on creating a following, seemingly out of nowhere, in unfriendly business environments. “Entrepreneurs are usually risk takers and they’re going to take a chance in a neighborhood because they see something happening,” said Walsh. The stakes are high. In New York City over 10,000 small businesses fail every year because of increasing rents, according to the Small Business Congress, an advocacy group to protect small businesses.

Freddy, 60, raises the shutters of Camila’s Café at five o’clock every morning. A strong Colombian coffee blend bubbles quietly in the corner, manned by Tarek. The grill hisses when Freddy flips strips of bacon. A steady stream of policemen, construction and factory workers and local commuters drop by.

A customer walks in and Freddy breaks away from the grill to shout, hello boss, his usual greeting. “If you take care of the customers, serve great food, you’ll be alright,” he said.

Freddy had his family’s support as soon as he first suggested starting his own business in Red Hook. “I wasn’t going to let him go by himself. It’s a family business,” said Tarek, who dwarfs his Father in size. Before he joined his Father, Tarek worked at a hotel in Park Slope, where, he said, he learned the art of great customer service. From behind the till he bantered genially with customers.

“I like that it’s run by a father and son,” said Gina Amama, who works in a photography studio nearby. “It’s a local joint, you know. If you forget your wallet they let you pay the next day,” she added later.

Camila’s Café was the first new business to arrive in this section of Red Hook. Defontes Deli stood alone for ninety years, said owner Dick Defontes. Camila’s is one block away. “Competition is always good, competition keeps you on your toes,” he said.

The Mandours said the biggest challenge was to attract customers. The café is twenty minutes from the nearest subway and a few blocks from Red Hook’s only genuine commercial strip.

“At first it was a little confusing because you’re trying to figure out the demographics of who is moving into the area and who is moving out of the area,” said Tarek.

Most of Red Hook’s residents live at the ‘back’ in the Red Hook Houses, the largest housing project in Brooklyn. Upscale businesses are needed in this part of Red Hook, said Wally Bazemore, Red Hook Houses resident. He wants to see that they are reasonably priced for locals. But, he said, “nobody’s gonna put shops out here if they’re not for the upper crust.”

A second Mandour brother, Sharef, designed the café. He insisted on details that appealed to Red Hook’s newer residents. Vintage photos of Red Hook hang on the walls and they sell merchandise for the coffee connoisseur.

Red Hook has undergone rapid economic change in the last decade. Rent increased by $200 per square foot in just six months during 2014, according to CityRealty. New cafes and restaurants popular with day-trippers from Manhattan have flourished along Van Brunt Street. ‘Baked’, a café, arrived 11 years ago when there were just four businesses on the block, said owner Matt Lewis.

“There rent was covered in a couple of days so there was a lot of time for experimenting that entrepreneurial muscle,” he said. Lewis now owns a second café in Manhattan.

Tarek’s dream is to start a chain and add some Egyptian flavors to the food menu. He knows at some point the business will be his to run. He’s confident about the future.

He said Camila’s Cafe is “the face of Columbia Street. That’s how I consider myself.”