New Elm Street coffee shop inspired by a bygone era

New Hampshire Union Leader
April 04. 2013 8:08PM
St. Anselm College graduate Alexandra Puglisi makes cappuccino Thursday during the grand opening of her coffee house, Cafe' La Reine on Elm Street in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Alexandra Puglisi got some good business advice as she celebrated the grand opening of her European-style coffee shop at 915 Elm St. with a roomful of family, dignitaries and well-wishers on Thursday. "What are you going to do to market this?" former Gov. John Lynch asked as he leaned over the counter for a cup.

He advised her to take advantage of her proximity to large employers like the law firms and banks nearby. "Figure out how to get someone in each business to email friends a menu," he said.

A 23-year-old graduate of St. Anselm College with a business degree, Puglisi clearly appreciated the advice, but was one step ahead of the longest serving governor in New Hampshire history, and a good businessman in his own right. She named her contact at the McLane firm, an attorney she'd met while in college, and said she makes it a point to do her banking at Citizens Bank, across the street.

Lynch stood on one side of Puglisi, with Mayor Ted Gatsas on the other, as she cut the ribbon to formally open Cafe la Reine, a Queen City cafe, to a round of applause and the clicks of cameras.

It was the culmination of an idea that began shortly after the young restaurateur graduated from St. Anselm in 2011. She spent much of her high school and college years working at Cobbetts Pond Pizzeria in Windham, her hometown. There she learned the ropes of the food service industry and last summer decided to go for it.

"I stopped working altogether and focused on my business plan," she said. "I knew if I didn't do it that way, I would never get around to it. If I hadn't done that, I wouldn't be here today."

Puglisi was inspired by a class at St. Anselm titled "Paris and New York in the 1920s and 1930s," a time of inspired conversation in coffee shops and bistros that led to some of the great works of modern literature and art. She hopes to recreate the ambiance recalled in books like "A Moveable Feast," Ernest Hemingway's memoir of his years in Paris as part of the American ex-patriate circle of writers.

"I love the idea of the coffeehouse, and the cafe atmosphere," she said, "all of the things that developed out of that - the books, music, poetry."

After settling on Manchester as the location, she walked up and down Elm Street throughout the summer and fall, looking for just the right spot between Hanover and Bridge streets. She and her Dad visited coffee shops and cafes in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., Somerville, Mass., and traveled to London and Ireland.

She put together a well-received business plan and was able to get a commercial loan, with some help from her grandfather, a successful Massachusetts businessman who co-signed on her behalf.

The long, narrow and intimate space at 915 Elm was exactly what she was looking for, and the landlord was happy to have her as a tenant. By February, the renovations were under way and the equipment on order. A seven-member staff, including Puglisi's two younger sisters, is trained and ready.

The decor is decidedly rustic, with New England artifacts dotting the walls. Old snowshoes, fishing gear and maps gathered at yard sales, flea markets and from the family basement suggest a bygone era.

Coffee from fresh beans is available in all of its forms, including espresso and cappuccino, with a large, red industrial espresso machine dominating the counter. The menu plays on the Queen City theme, with sandwiches named after queens from Cleopatra to Elizabeth, along with fresh baked goods and sweets.

Puglisi has heard from a local musician who'd like to host an open mic night and has had requests for poetry readings. The doors have been open for the past week, attracting about 60 customers a day.

Her business plan calls for 200 a day to make ends meet, and if everyone at Thursday's grand opening tells four friends, she could be well on her way.

One customer she should be able to count on has an office just a few doors down, where he now does business consulting.

"I plan to become a regular," Lynch said.

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