Coffee is the only beverage, that I have tried and failed, to give up. When sleep has been elusive, I have always attributed it to caffeine, and I don’t see the point in drinking coffee without caffeine. I have since decided any attempt will be futile, so I drink coffee every day and I do it in moderation – never after 2 p.m. The other gripe I have with coffee is that when I drink it, I want something sweet or breakfast savory to go with it. That usually means a croissant, coffee cake, a biscuit with butter and jam, a donut, an english muffin; you get the picture. I recently caught wind of quite a lot of buzz about a coffee shop that opened in late January, on Cumberland Ave. (unfortunately very close to my gym). I gave in to my urge to stay away and made a stop – Coffee ME Up is not like any other coffee shop in Maine.
What sets this gem apart are three things: First, the owners, Alba Zakja and Mateo Hodo are two of the most beautiful humans I have encountered. Their smiles are warm, welcoming and real. Second, their pastry offerings are homemade and Albanian; Albania is their birthplace, although they have both become American citizens. Two of their pastries are especially delicious: Byrek is a traditional phyllo savory pastry. It’s light, unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in Portland, and if you're lucky, there will still be some left during your visit. The other is Alba’s mother Simina’s Baklava. Alba can make all of these Albanian pastries as well, but seeing Simina in the kitchen and knowing she taught Alba how to bake these delicious pastries is extremely satisfying to this customer. What makes Simina’s Baklava different from any other I have tasted is how not-so-sweet it is. It’s syrupy and nutty and melts in your mouth. Lastly, these two beautiful individuals have a mission and that mission is to spread love and kindness throughout Portland, as well as their commitment to quality and an excellent customer experience.
The owners of Coffee Me Up Alba Zakja and Mateo Hodo.
They get to know their guests in ways that are immediately embracing. You’ll feel like family by the second visit and if you don’t feel this way, trust me– it’s you not them. Alba and Mateo have many stories to tell, but I will share one, that in these divisive times, warmed my heart.
Mateo is a hugger. He doesn’t hug everyone mind you, but if he thinks you need a hug or want a hug, it’s part of his spreading love around philosophy. So recently a customer comes in and Mateo hugs him. This fella's companion is pleasantly shocked and Mateo asked why. The fella says that he hasn’t had a hug in 10 years. The guy comes into the shop soon after and gets another hug; only this time he hugs Mateo back. This seems to make Mateo very happy. I ask him about this so called “love.” I naively wonder what he means by “a ripple effect of joy and happiness.” He very innocently replies, “If someone leaves here a little happier than when he or she came in, they’ll go out and spread that love around.” I’m touched by how deeply he believes he and Alba can inspire change in their own small way.
I was happy to hear that neither of them has experienced discrimination since they opened the shop. People are curious about their birthplace. Some even come in and happily share that they have been to Albania; others have no idea where it is. Alba and Mateo are open about where they are from, where they have been, and where they are going. They’re way too consumed with their new venture to contemplate another shop, but I did hear a slight pause when I asked. Their playful and loving banter leads me to believe that these two truly enjoy working together. When I asked her about Mateo and their future, she said, “Mateo doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.” To which Mateo replied, “Who says I want to grow up?” Then he tells me that he enjoys working with Alba because it enables him to shower her with affection all day. The couple designed the warm, contemporary interior together, and Mateo did most of the construction. Alba designed the logo, and Alba’s brother Ksenis, came up with the name; clearly a family with loads of talent.
While I was getting a latte and pastry on my last visit to Coffee ME Up, and by the way Alba hopes all will understand that “ME” has two meanings and the second stands for Maine; I noticed a sign announcing soft serve ice cream. No way was I leaving without a taste. For now, vanilla is the only flavor they serve; however, that is soon going to change. This ice cream is smooth, creamy and fulfilling, unlike other air-filled and too-sweet soft serve you’ll find in other places throughout the area. Soon to appear on the menu will be their version of an afagado – ice cream drowned by espresso. Coffee ME Up is open Monday to Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and weekends from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Alba and Mateo mentioned they might close for July 4th. I encouraged them to take some time off; I want them to be with us for years to come and running a business like this takes its toll.
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