Wednesday, January 2, 2019

New Energy at Red Pipe Cafe - The Modern Mom & Pop Shop

By Michael Perlman

Cozy dining area of Red Pipe Cafe, Photo by Michael Perlman
Artist Akio Matsuyoshi catches up with owner Ofer Kertes, Photo by Michael Perlman
Enter Red Pipe Cafe, a charming, earthy, and unique Forest Hills destination at 71-60 Austin Street, and one is bound to make a friend, exercise their creativity, and socialize and relax while enticing their palates with kosher, organic, and vegan dishes and drinks. Dr. Rene Alkalay, now age 77, co-founded the business in 2014, and 3 months ago, co-owner Ofer Kertes, age 45, came on board, building upon the tradition with new foods and ingredients, an expanded kitchen, improved aesthetics, and an increase in events. Diverse plans will continue for a community that has become the Forest Hills-based owners’ extended family. 

Red Pipe Cafe facade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Owners Dr Rene Alkalay & Ofer Kertes, Photo by Michael Perlman
After a short-term hiatus, the popular live music while you dine concept featuring will make a comeback in January. Past favorite acts included husband-wife musical duo Lou & Marie Michaels’ Bach/Beatles/Bacharach. On 3-month rotations, 3 to 4 local artists display their paintings and photos on a rediscovered brick wall or a neutral painted backdrop, and gallery shows enable patrons to mingle with artists including Robin Amy Bass, a friend to many. Other attractions are Poetry Night on Tuesdays and Open Mic on Thursday evenings. A stand-up comedy feature is also being considered. 

Artist Robin Amy Bass alongside her paintings, Photo by Michael Perlman
“Our renovation has made a huge difference,” said Dr. Alkalay. He eyes necessities such as a delivery service, distributing take-out menus, as well as offering vegan catered parties, as long as the community comes forward. “We basically put in every nail with our own hands,” said Ofer, who was permitted by Dr. Alkalay to renovate it largely as he pleased.

Dr. Alkalay explained his commitment to a vegan lifestyle. “It is a fastest growing movement, and we are contributing to a better world by not destroying the environment or hurting people’s health. I think of us as the New York home of the organic vegan sandwich.” Furthermore, Red Pipe is one of a few cafes where patrons can find organic, vegan, gluten-free pastries.

His early adulthood influenced his artistic vision. “When I was younger, I would go to coffee houses in the Village and in Europe, which were really meeting places for the arts. You could hear at any given table a heated discussion on contemporary or classic art, music, and literature, so I wanted to create a place where community and the arts can come together. I love the idea that we are providing culture in our community, instead of just food. The arts and culture keep society sane, and if people don’t speak the same language, they find ways to communicate through the arts.” The combination has proven to be a novelty to for Queens. “People come in and just love the ambiance, and even if there is no event, the place develops an energy,” he continued.

Dr. Alkalay, who describes himself as not a highly competitive individual, said, “A few years ago, when we introduced live music, other places nearby began having it. There’s a whole difference between live musicians and piped-in music. I would hope that we are considered a pioneer, and more businesses will open and use our model.”

With much gratitude, he said, “Every day that I wake up, I am grateful to G-D for giving me this day. We are here to make the world a better place by giving a little more health, beauty, and compassion.” Dr. Alkalay’s talents include published books on meditation, Kabbalah, poetry, as well as playing guitar and singing, a sight locals are familiar with. 

Owner Ofer Kertes
Ofer draws upon culinary experiences since age 15. He perfected his skills in a culinary institute in Israel, was previously a coffee shop owner, and was an executive chef in high-end hotels. Just a short time ago, Red Pipe was his go-to spot, but he was destined to partner with Dr. Alkalay, who he has achieved much chemistry with. “My recipe for success is to be passionate and consistent by serving delicious, healthy food. It has become a joyful experience, where work became a pleasure and a hobby to serve the community, and it’s really nice working with musicians and artists. I was drawn to the vibe.” 

One of many new coffee mug designs, Photo by Michael Perlman
Ofer explained various new concepts. “People really like being served our coffee in a variety of colorful mugs, and we are also selling them. For every three bags of coffee purchased, you will get a free mug.” One of many slogans is “A happy home is made with love… Home is where the coffee,” which can be found on a sunshine and floral themed mug. 

Tabbouleh Bowl featuring hummus, chopped greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, carrots, walnuts & lemon olive oil vinaigrette
Coconut Yogurt Parfait, chocolate cranberry or mixed nuts
Ofer takes pride in a new line of soups. “Everyone is asking for our red bean soup, as well as our lentil and split pea soups and vegetable stew.” The bowls selection is another new feature, and includes a tabbouleh bowl, quinoa bowl, and oatmeal. Beverages are unique and diverse for Forest Hills. “Our turmeric latte is a huge success, the hot apple cider is really nice, and our coconut milk hot chocolate is a real treat. We will add a cold brew rack and the Siphon Brewing Method. It will be very interesting to look at, and we are working with Counter Culture Coffee, which is considered a very good brand.” 

Oatmeal bowl with apple, banana, peanut butter, cinnamon, agave
At least 4 varieties of Craft wines and beers have proven to be an attraction. “We decided to go out of the ordinary selection and promote more of the New York-based brewers, and we have received a good community response,” said Ofer.

The sandwich menu has also been revitalized. “Our grilled cheese sandwich, which uses cashew-based cheese, has become very popular. We are also serving vegan bacon and vegan pastrami, which is opening a variety of options.” The Metropolitan sandwich is another attraction, where hummus is served with Chipotle mayo, house slaw, olives, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. 

The inviting counter, Photo by Michael Perlman
Small details that offer a personalized experience include a retractable storefront that encompasses a welcoming spirit and brings the outside in, the jovial staff, subdued lighting, and the new Red Pipe bulletin board with the popular “Word of The Day,” “Thought For The Day,” and “On This Day” features. It read, “Dec. 17, 1962: Beatles’ first British TV appearance.” “It becomes an art exhibit and we have people from the neighborhood who are maintaining it,” said Ofer. 

Red Pipe Cafe Community Bulletin Board, Photo by Michael Perlman
Many patrons have been “giving back.” He explained, “Every new customer is assigned with a certain position to create a sense of responsibility and community, and I am grateful for lots of help from community members in operating Red Pipe on a daily basis. Marina tests our brownies, Gary is the bulletin board manager, Scott is our coffee shop chauffeur, Charlie is the door bouncer, Lou is the shop consultant, and Marty is our cleaning inspector.” He then chuckled, “They become employees, and we end up having more employees than customers.” He continued, “I am grateful for the Forest Hills community and visitors who have been loyal and bring a sense of togetherness into our lives, and whether it’s the ambiance, the vibe, or the splendid staff, this is a key ingredient for success.”

Ofer shared simple pleasures amid high expectations. “Some people come in here, since they find it therapeutic and relaxing to have a conversation with me over a cup of coffee. In ten years, Red Pipe will hopefully have more branches in Queens, as long as we keep the same concept and not feel like a big corporation.”

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