Students are not the only ones who bring a taste of home with them to Oberlin's campus. When Sammy Ahwal moved with his son and brother from San Francisco to northeastern Ohio in order to be near the rest of the family, he brought along his entire restaurant, Java Zone.
"The original Java Zone was close to Berkeley," he said. "Oberlin reminded me of Berkeley on a small scale, so I thought my food would go over well here."
Reclining in his office, a small room with a little window overlooking the vaulted coffeebar, Ahwal explained Java Zone's philosophy as "very Mediterranean. I like that because the concept of quality coffee is strong there. My food comes from around that area too-Italy, Greece and the Middle East."
The laid-back aspect of Europe's Mediterranean cafés also appealed to him. "I took trips to Spain and Italy," he said. "The atmosphere there is one of taking a break. I like to be in a place full of people talking. It's nice to hear all the conversations going on." Ahwal said that faculty and students who travel abroad comment on the Java Zone's similarity to places in Europe.
Yet Ahwal brings his own life into Java Zone as well. "It's a family business," he said, and he enjoys extending the feeling of family to the patrons. "I like to keep in touch with my customers. I get used to certain people. I miss them when they move on."
His West Coast background also comes into play. "Living around San Francisco and Seattle, I learned from the pioneers of quality coffeemaking in America," said Ahwal, who has been brewing for over 17 years.
"In San Francisco, I tried the concept of high-quality food and coffee together," he said. "It works better here because the San Francisco market is so saturated. A small college town is ideal. People still appreciate the concept here."
Java Zone's light, predominantly vegetarian menu fits in seamlessly with Oberlin's general appetite, but it is less a product of catering to the customer than a natural evolution of Ahwal's culinary background. "All my food started in the family," he said. "I was born in Jerusalem, and learned Mediterranean dishes through my parents."
It is interesting about vegetarian cooking," said Ahwal, "that people from third-world countries have tended to be very innovative with vegetables," because they could not afford meat. "Take my green cut beans with tomatoes and garlic served over rice-it's vegetarian, but very hearty."
Yet the credo behind it all is that food be cooked well and with spirit. "You could have five people all making hummus from the same recipe," said Ahwal, "but one might taste better. Hummus comes from your heart."
As he discusses hummus, Ahwal's face lights up-his silvery black goatee framing a smile. "Let it sit in olive oil, and cover it with onions! I always eat it, even when I'm not at work."
All the food at Java Zone, except for the cakes, is made from scratch right on the premises. Scones, muffins, croissants and cookies are baked every morning at 6:30 a.m. Ahwal said, "One woman sometimes comes from Boston to visit her daughter. She always orders two dozen scones. She tells me that they're better than anywhere in Boston. That's gratification for me."
Like his Java Zone, Ahwal's Ohio is a mixture of past and present. "Ohio has been home to my family since the late 1880s, when my relatives moved there from Jaffa," he said. Ahwal also first moved to Ohio when he left Jerusalem, and attended Kent State University.
As he chats lightly, sipping coffee and lighting a cigarette, Ahwal seems so restful that it is easy to forget his 16-hour-a-day workweeks. Most recently, he is opening up a second Java Zone in Rocky River, Ohio, 22 miles west of here. "People are not so fast-lane. They are settled, slower," he said. "There is a lot to offer in Ohio."
Caffeine: The Java Zone, and its main competitor, the Fève, are fixtures of student social life. (photo by Susanna Henighan)
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 7, October 30, 1998
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