Lori Iannone sits at one of the square, white tables in Ho-Ho-Kus' Alt Eats Cafe cupping a mug of coffee between her hands.
She wears a baby blue apron printed with colorful doughnuts and her brown hair is knotted on top of her head.
Iannone has heaps of work to get done between the North Maple Avenue Cafe, her latest business endeavor, and longtime bakery We Knead Dough in Garfield.
But taking time to mingle with customers is high on her list of priorities. After all, it's a key ingredient that goes into her passion: Blending good food and good people.
"I always equated food with love and comfort," said Iannone of Ringwood. "Both things that made you feel good."
Iannone took over the cafe from salon owner Eric Altomare in February, and through a long process of trial and error, has nailed down a menu boasting vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Some of this week's specials include kale salad, Mexican quinoa stew and split pea soup. Iannone keeps a steady rotation of gluten-free treats in the cases.
The idea, Iannone says, is to come in feeling good and leave feeling better.
"There's nothing worse than going somewhere you're not comfortable," said Iannone. "It's not pieces. It's a whole experience."
And Iannone says it starts with her.
The longtime area restaurant owner got her start in her grandmother's kitchen.
"Food was always my thing," she said. "I was a little kid I just loved to make it. I would stand in the kitchen with Cool Whip and oranges and just make pretty things."
Once she was old enough to get a job, Iannone began working at Bob's Pizzeria on Route 59 in Suffern, N.Y., where she says she learned the founding principles of the restaurant business -- spanning far beyond food alone.
"I learned how to care about how the place looks and how people feel when they come in," Iannone said.
"I liked the people and the action and movement. I liked that they liked the food."
She started with the basics -- making pizza boxes, sauces and dough. Then, she mastered pizza before honing her skills at school.
After two decades working at Denallo's in River Edge, Iannone went on to build Restaurant L in Allendale in 2005.
Soon after, she started her custom bakery We Knead Dough in Garfield and is hoping for the same success at Alt Eats Cafe.
Local customer Asia Kuczma had walked by Alt Eats Cafe often after it opened and figured she'd stop by. It's since become a regular stop for her, and what kept her coming back was just what Iannone had hoped: "Great snacks and friendly staff."
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