Dima Rajab, who grew up in Kuwait before moving to Jordan, said many of the items she is planning for the cafe will incorporate the flavors and ingredients of her Middle Eastern background, including rosewater, a drink with fruit from the tamarind tree, and in summer months, karkadé, a version of hibiscus tea popular in the Levant — the eastern Mediterranean region. The menu will feature several traditional family recipes for spinach and meat pies, tabbouleh and hummus.
While Dima Rajab has worked in the restaurant industry before, including as a waitress at Octagon Steakhouse in Mystic, the cafe will be her first venture into entrepreneurship.
A mother of three, the oldest of whom is 11 years old, she explained that with her children at older ages, she wanted to use her extra time for a project that would benefit herself, her family and her community.
“I have a lot of free time now,” she said. “If I didn’t do something, it would be wasted.”
Before taking the plunge, however, Dima Rajab spent about two years researching, meeting with vendors, attending coffee conventions and even putting together an informal survey of about 30 local residents, asking what they look for in local food and restaurant businesses.
“What we found is that people are looking for local produce, fresh produce,” said her husband, Farouk Rajab, acting consultant on the project and general manager at the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spas.
“And something different,” Dima Rajab added.
Based on a partnership established from her preliminary research and meetings, the cafe will serve coffee from Portland Roasting Coffee, based in Maine. Baked goods will be delivered from a Cape Cod bakery that emphasizes all-natural ingredients.
Closer to home, the couple has also spoken with The Farmer’s Cow, a Norwich-based chain of dairy farms, for milk products at the cafe. Dima Rajab said she is also hoping to use local honey and possibly even olive oils from the new specialty store in Pawcatuck.
The cafe’s logo and branding was designed by Stonington-based KRUSH graphics, while A. B. Powell Woodworks is designing some of the new furniture pieces for the cafe, which will include indoor seating and free Wi-Fi along with takeout options.
Farouk Rajab described the cafe atmosphere as simple yet modern, with the only physical renovations planned before the opening being the installation of a partition wall inside, as well as new furniture and equipment.
“The design of the building really lends itself to what we want to do,” Farouk Rajab said, noting that the current structure was built by 1999 for Bess Eaton before operating from 2004 to 2010 as a Tim Hortons.
Since the Canadian coffee company closed all of its New England locations in 2010, the property has remained vacant, except for a 10-day period when it operated as a spa in 2013. GBD Realty, a Taunton, Mass., company, purchased the property for $55,000 in 2011, according to town property records.
Though the appearance of the building itself will not change much, later renovations may be added later, according to Farouk Rajab.
“It takes a lot to start a business, so you have to evaluate what is most important,” he said. “We really think having quality equipment and a nice atmosphere and good food is the most important.”
The total start-up costs of the operation were estimated at around $100,000, which also includes capital investments and training for the six employees the cafe will hire. With about one month until the cafe opens for business, interior design and parking lot landscaping are ongoing.
“Every time I think about it, I get nervous,” Dima Rajab said of the opening. “I’m glad I have a lot of help and support.”
Levant Cafe’s hours will be 6 a.m to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.