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Once a grocery, now a cafe

Tariq Zawaideh keeps things moving at the new Fillmore Fine Foods Cafe.

By Chris Barnett

IF YOU NEED a new hideout with plenty of space to chill over a hot coffee, feast on fresh, fairly priced food and connect with fast, free WiFi — without your train of thought being derailed by a room full of chatterboxes — the recently opened Fillmore Fine Foods Cafe could be the haunt you’ve hunted.

For a side street cafe, the place at 1981 Sutter, just off Fillmore, is huge and airy. For two decades, it was Fillmore Fine Foods, Fred and Jeannette Dugman’s corner grocery in the middle of block.

“Fred said he worked virtually every day for 20 years and now I’m working every day,” says Tariq Zawaideh, the 24-year-old owner, who’s making his first foray into the neighborhood cafe business. Previously he was a piercer in a tattoo parlor in town. Now Zawaideh has redeployed his artistic talents to his new venture and says he’s thrilled to be his own boss and barista.

Walk in and immediately to the right is a cozy sofa, with three easy chairs and a coffee table, all made of rattan. There’s a conversational grouping with a view out the window and abstract art by a local artist on the walls. Simple tables and chairs occupy the rest of the space under a high ceiling.

To compete in this food-conscious neighborhood, Zawaideh is walking the fine line between reasonable prices and generous portions cooked from scratch. A 12-oz. coffee is $1.50, probably the best deal in the area. Lattes start at $2.88. Double espresso at $2.50 is the most popular, says the proprietor, who’s assisted by his brother Randy.

The ambitious breakfast, lunch and dinner menu covers practically an entire wall. The hot sellers so far are the falafel wrap at $5.95, the fresh roasted turkey sandwich at $7.25 and the club sandwich packed with turkey, bacon, ham, tomato, red onion and avocado at $6.75. A bowl of fresh fruit is $5.25.

Says Zawaideh: “Our ‘omigod’ salads are a specialty because we serve them in deep oversized bowls.” For $6.95, the big bowls can come filled with a chicken Caesar salad, an apple chicken salad or a half dozen others. Open face bagels and English muffins piled high with you-name-it start at $3.50. Breakfast items are served all day.

The cafe is still a work in progress. Zawaideh says he hasn’t perfected his dessert menu yet, but a dessert crepe will debut soon. His website isn’t up yet and he’s still waiting for his beer and wine license. A big screen TV is on its way, but he vows the decibel count will be easy on the ears.

Meanwhile, his customers aren’t complaining. William Ransom, a computer security specialist from London, was munching on the sizeable turkey sandwich and working on his laptop, which was plugged into one of the cafe’s many wall outlets. “I almost went into Starbucks, but it was too crowded,” said Ransom. “Here I got right on the Internet without a problem and the sandwich is very good.”

A newly minted regular has become a fan. “You don’t get this kind of menu anywhere else on Fillmore, especially at these prices,” says Mike Fedor, a technology executive with Blue Shield who lives directly across the street from the cafe. He should know. Fedor took a three-year break from health care and ran a coffeehouse in the upper Polk neighborhood.

There’s a microwave in the food prep area behind the counter at Fillmore Fine Foods Cafe, but Zawaideh insists it’s for personal use only.

“I never use the microwave for anything on the menu, only when I need to heat up food from the outside for my own dinner,” he says. “I’m here every day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and I’ve eaten everything on my own menu at least twice or three times. So I order takeout from other restaurants.”