Cafe Naci Opens Despite COVID Concerns

By Paula Phounsavath | Assistant News Editor

Photo from Paula Phounsavath

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be considered impossible to open a local restaurant without considering the factors beforehand. There are strict health regulations Gov. Northam placed, as Virginia is still in Phase 3 of reopening. Budgeting for the food and ingredients, including hiring and paying employees. In addition, having local business certifications can be troubling. However, a little Turkish restaurant sits on the edge of Granby St. and 19th St. called, Naci’s (Pronounced, “Na-Ji” in Turkish) Corner Cafe beaten the odds.

The owner, Jale Evsen, a friendly and zestful Turkish woman who grew up in Germany, welcomely showed around the interior. She opened the restaurant to commemorate her late husband, Naci, who passed away two years ago of cancer at 57.

The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays to prep food. Despite the cafe being compacted, the atmosphere of opening arms and welcoming people in for food was present.

Not many people know what consists of Turkish food, especially when the country bridges Europe and Asia--making the region also known as, “Eurasia.” Historically, Turkey was apart of the Ottoman Empire for 600 years. Its food shared alongside Greece and the Mediterranean, combining some parts of the Middle East as well--making the country a melting pot of cultures.

“The Sultans’ [Ottoman Empire rulers] kitchen always got the best of the food, from all its regions and all its territories.” Jale informs. “So many dishes, it has such rich cuisines.”

Most college students, especially on-campus, are looking for new spots to eat. Evsen says Naci’s Corner Cafe offers authentic Turkish cuisine. From hand-stretched borek pastries (baked pastry filled with meat, cheese, and vegetables), kofte (stuffed lamb--or any other meat-- either as a meatball or skewer) and salads--all at a low price range, but also healthy and nutritious as well.

“I believe that the price point--I’m sure is very important to a college student," said Evsen. "They’re on a very tight budget, and [sic] I have three students in my family knowing they have to watch the bottom line.” She includes, “I do pay attention to that and I make sure there’s always something that they can afford as well.”

Though the cafe is very conscious of how and what they serve to their customers, the pandemic has mixed impacts on the cafe. Evsen says on the first few days of opening and being a new business,

“I have a very limited staff, so it’s basically me and one other person during limited hours because I really cannot foresee what’s going to happen with COVID.” She adds, “I find myself wiping and cleaning after every customer, so that means I have to limit the time conversing with the customer or I have to spread out the seating.”

She recalls pre-Corona times, “It used to be that you would go into a hustling and bustling cafe, people didn’t mind sitting next to each other. Now they do and they should, so we spread things out.”

Times being very uncertain and opening a local business is scary, according to Evsen. “I didn’t have anything to go by.” She says. “I didn’t know if I was going to sell a single item. I was very cautious and overprepared and I had a lot of waste the first two weeks.”

Despite the pandemic making things difficult, Evsen is still grateful.

“People are amazing, The good thing about this [COVID-19] is that it allowed me to take things easy.” Evsen says.

The conversation drifted into talking about her late husband, Naci. When Naci passed away, Evsen felt as if she did not have the proper closure for herself and for her late husband. It took three months from Naci’s to be diagnosed then passed. She recalls of the moments of grief of losing him were of in-denial.

“Seeing him--like I said, very handsome and tall--but by the end of the third month, he looked like he was 80 years old. That was the hardest thing to watch.”

She includes, “When you have someone like that in your life and he’s ripped away, without completing his dreams, you feel unfinished--I felt guilty. I felt he gave his life for us, so this is my way of me giving back and completing his life for him.”

With the new cafe off to a good start, Evsen says more menu items, such as sandwiches to-go, will be included once it has more customers coming in. In addition to new menu items, the cafe will be undergoing renovations sometime soon for outdoor seating, backyard patio, and a mural painted on the side of the restaurant.

If Evsen’s late husband is looking at her and the family from above, Evsen says with her eyes crinkling, “I think he’d be proud of me.”