By Len Lear
“This once 1700s' schoolhouse makes for a great cafe. The service and breakfast sandwiches were just as appealing. Delicious and adorable!” This was a comment on the restaurant website, Restaurantji.com, by customer Jennifer Herrera about Alena's Cafe, which opened in June of last year at 6669 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, replacing Little Jimmy's. It is typical of the reviews of Alena Cafe, some of which are absolutely rhapsodic.
And on yelp.com, the nation's premier customer review restaurant website, where almost every restaurant, no matter how famous, gets slammed by at least some customers, there are 18 reviews. Sixteen are five stars (the most), and the other two are four stars. I have never seen another restaurant with 100 percent of the reviews being four or five stars.
A typical review stated: “Was excited to check out this cafe, and they did not disappoint. Had a cappuccino with the most perfect foam and a very yummy hot chocolate. I love that the baked goods are made in house. They offer both vegan and traditional baked goods, which I think makes it a perfect fit for the neighborhood.”
“We are actually doing better now than we did before the pandemic, although it is all takeout,” said Donte Fassett, owner-chef, last week. “I can only attribute it to good word-of-mouth and our outdoor dining for 18 people. Also, during the pandemic we have added mobile food delivery services, which has helped a lot.”
Fassett, 33, a graduate of Roxborough High School, does not have the kind of culinary background you might expect at a neighborhood cafe. He is a graduate of Le Condon Bleu, a classic French culinary school in Pittsburgh, and was a sous chef at The Joseph Ambler Inn in North Wales for four years and executive chef at Heller’s Seafood in Warrington for five years. He also started Chef Donte’s Delicious Dishes, a food truck, in the spring of 2016, which has participated in many public and private events over the years.
And although he is too modest to say it, I have a feeling that one of the reasons the pandemic has not put a dent in Alena's Cafe (named for his 10-year-old daughter) is that people in the community know that Fassett also operates a remarkable nonprofit, Mason Meals (named for his 8-year-old son). He started it in 2017, two years after he decided that the processed food served by Mason's daycare in West Oak Lane was just not all that good.
When the daycare owners found out that Donte was a professional chef, they asked him to cook for all of the kids at their facility, which he did for two years. When the word got out about how well the kids were eating, other daycares around the city sought his services. As a result, Mason Meals currently serves 63 childcare centers throughout Philadelphia.
Mason Meals serves three meals a day to about 2100 children. “And we currently have 16 additional daycares on a waiting list,” said Fassett. “Mason Meals currently has 14 employees and three refrigerated vans, and we plan to add an additional van by October. And not every daycare center has opened back up yet. We are currently pulling centers off the waiting list one or two at a time.”
Fassett’s meals include healthy staples like quinoa, carrots, fresh fruit and shepherd’s pie. The chef is well aware that many of the children he is feeding eat lots of fatty, sugary foods at home, resulting in obesity, diabetes and other serious health issues.
“Parents have told me that their kids don’t eat vegetables at home, or that they —the parents — only eat one vegetable,” said Moneek Pines, director of Artrageous, a child care facility in Mt. Airy that also provides lots of art-based learning experiences, to PhilaCitizen.org. That’s one reason Pines said she hired Mason Meals in April of 2018 to provide food for her 14 children (at the time).
When asked what was the best advice he has ever received, Fassett said, “The best advice I’ve ever received was to work hard for what I want and never to expect anything from anyone. That was from my grandmother.”
Alena's Cafe opens at 7:30 a.m. For more information, call 267-437-2152. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org