Photo by Chere Coen
A New Brew in Breaux Bridge: How a career-changing teacher and her friends old and new, brought a very special coffee shop to life.
Melanie Harrington loved her job teaching social studies, but the bureaucracy of teaching was getting the best of her. When she passed the empty building at the corner of Main Street and Highway 31 in Breaux Bridge, only a few blocks from her home, ideas began percolating. The summer had just begun and she had until September before her teacher pay ended. If she envisioned changing professions she needed to do so quickly. She decided to open a coffee shop.
The empty space Harrington eyed recently housed Luculus, an antique shop that specialized in kitchenware. But there was wonderful history that took it back further. The building was originally Broussard Hardware, built in the early 1920s and still sporting its original wooden flooring, tin ceiling, shelving, and a ladder rail clerks would use to retrieve products on top shelves.
The space next door once housed the Coffee Break coffee shop, one that served up community events such as jam sessions as well. Two galleries run by local artists — Bella Arti by photographer Sonny Monteleone and Ginger Kelly Glass — now occupy that space.
Opening a coffee shop within the block was a natural, Harrington said, because it brought a coffee shop and community space back to Breaux Bridge, existed in a historic spot, one that many people remembered, and was accented by galleries and surrounding antique stores.
The result was Joie de Vivre, a “coffee and cultural café.”
In Cajun culture, folks offer a coup de main, or a helping hand to one another. Like a barn raising, the idea is many hands get the job done faster. In South Louisiana, there’s usually lagniappe involved—meaning food and fun come later. In this case, joie de vivre!
Frank Dupuis, who owned the former Breaux Bridge coffee shop, offered his time throughout the summer, Harrington said, then came in one day before the café’s opening and insisted that the shop have a piano.
“He said, ‘It’s all about the joie!,’” Harrington said with a laugh.
Three days later a moving van arrived with a 1920s-era grand piano. Dupuis had found the instrument online, viewed it in Baton Rouge and discovered the piano was of the same time period as the building and created by the Harrington Piano Company.
The piano now graces the front window, complemented by a bass once used in Dupuis’s coffee shop.
“I’m sitting behind the counter and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m getting paid for this.’”
When Harrington decided to remove the paint from the exterior’s siding, she liked the distressed look left behind. But that meant painstakingly scraping the old paint by hand. Her neighbors joined her one day when business was slow, working alongside her.
Just before the café’s opening, artist Joel Theriot came into the store and announced his support.
“He came in one day and spread his hands on the counter and said, “I’m making something for here, and it’s going to be big,’” Harrington said.
The result was a lovely iron tree that graces the front counter, accented by two birds and nests. And yes, it’s impressive.
“I’ve gotten so much support and advice, and from people who could be charging me top prices,” Harrington said. “It’s been a journey of abundance, definitely a community collaborative project with help from friends and family. Every morning I wake up and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
Socialists, Harrington explained, state that people feel comfortable first at home, then at work, then at churches or bars where they can socialize with familiar faces. Coffeehouses are fast becoming the “third space,” Harrington said, a place where people feel at home and can enjoy time with friends.
Her hope is that Café Joie de Vivre fills that need.
“I really wanted a place where people feel embraced,” she said. “I wanted us to be a third space for people.”
In addition to specialty coffees and drinks served all day, the café sells pastries made in-house, croissants and bagels and light lunches such as organic greens salads, soups and croissant sandwiches.
Joie de Vivre displays local artwork on its walls, from Leslie Leonpacher’s whimsical ceramics to the graceful metalwork of Kenneth John Patin—plus sells Fair Trade products and local music and DVDs. It’s “coffee with a conscious” Harrington said.
Everyone is welcome here, she added, including kids. Harrington related how junior high students from nearby St. Bernard Catholic School checked her out from across the street until one brave soul entered and ordered a Coke and a cookie. Once they realized they were welcomed and it wasn’t expensive, Harrington said, they started visiting daily.
Joie de Vivre offers weekly events like a 6 am Wednesday yoga class taught by musician Christine Balfa and a Mom’s Morning social event at 10 am on Tuesdays. Musician Brazos Huval — who teaches music three doors down — led the first Cajun music jam session, which is now offered at 11 am Saturdays with a children’s jam session every third Sunday.
“The house was packed, just delightful,” Harrington said of that first jam.
Other special events, such as literary nights and performances, are in the works, but Harrington wants to feel things out first since she just opened in early September.
Still, business is good for the newcomer, not bad for a school teacher taking a summer’s leap of faith.
“It’s been a delightful journey,” Harrington said. “It’s been a beautiful adventure.”
Details. Details. Details.
Café Joie de Vivre 107 N Main Street Breaux Bridge, La. (337) 442-6354 See their Facebook page for daily lunch specials.