Everyone knows the rule: No food or drink allowed in the library. But in the lower level of Greenwich Library at 101 W. Putnam Ave., Elton's Cafe provides a clean, well-lit exemption from the rule, and the business model is affordable, nutritious comfort food.
Gluten-free? No problem. Sweet tooth? No problem. Tight budget? No problem.
Elton Sousa, who immigrated from Brazil in 1995, and his longtime employee Jose Santos, speak both English and Portuguese. The pair hit the deck running around 7 o'clock each morning and the cooking begins in earnest.
Sousa describes the ebb and flow of customers who begin to arrive at 9 a.m., when the library opens. Breakfast – perhaps a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich for $3.50 or a bagel with cream cheese for $2.25 – keeps the cafe busy all morning. Hot coffee is available all day.
The lunch crowd forms a swift stream beginning around noon and tapering off around 2:30 p.m. "Our soups are very popular," blushed Sousa on a recent February afternoon when the temps dipped below freezing. "We don't have a huge menu of selections, but everything is home made. Nothing out of a can."
Taped to the glass counter is a handwritten list of lunch specials. Beef barley soup has been crossed out. It sold out quickly.
Sousa says he has never advertised, though he has a Facebook page with 58 fans. And his menu can be found on the library website. Still, countless regular customers including library staff and patrons, as well as nearby retail and office workers find their way to the cafe. Also, according to Sousa, both doctors and patients from medical office buildings across Dearfield Drive frequent the cafe.
Many customers have shared their stories with Sousa over the years – some of hard luck, some of astounding success. This being Greenwich, some stories combine both.
Sousa, who rents his space from Friends of the Library (Friends own the building; the Town employs the staff) has operated the cafe since 1999. Though he does not have family here, his customers were there for him in the clutch.
A year ago Elton broke both his feet in an accident and was confined to a wheelchair for several months. "I received 275 greeting cards. Each one sent to me tears," he said. "My library customers came to see me in Greenwich Hospital. They came to see me at home in Harrison," he said. "I probably shouldn't say this, but the bills piled up and my library friends took up a collection to help pay for my medications."
Sousa is the type to pay it forward. For years he has cooked Sunday lunch for residents of Pacific House emergency men's shelter in Stamford, where he admits he occasionally recognizes faces. With a team that includes Mary Mullen from Darien, and Anita Lai from Community Answers, Sousa cooks Thanksgiving dinner at Pacific House.
Sousa loves to cook and puts in the same effort, whether it be for the homeless or the well-off of Greenwich. "My favorites are the turkey meatloaf, lox, and the beef stew," said 40-year library employee Rick Langeloh, a library technical assistant.
Children's librarian, Deirdre Sullivan, from stopped by for a late lunch. "Elton takes care of me," she said. "He'll adjust the chicken salad special for me so it's gluten-free." Sullivan added that the children and their care-givers love the cafe. "Elton's on a first name basis with a lot of our kids," she said.
Indeed Elton caters to kids' taste. "They love the ice cream," he said pointing to the clear topped ice cream chest as a 4-year old in a stroller craned his neck to see inside. Staples of the kids' menu include the classic PBJ for $2.75, cheese sandwich for $4.00, kids tuna or turkey sandwich for $4.75.
After school, students of all ages often meet with their tutors in the cafe.
Great food. Good cheer. A small business thrives in Greenwich. If that weren't enough, the café is lined with bookshelves that burst with books, movies and DVDs – all for sale. The paperbacks, for example, courtesy of Friends of the Library, can be purchased for 25¢ each or buy-one-get-one free.
Elton's Cafe is located in the lower level of Greenwich Library at 101 West Putnam Ave. Hours are Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. Closed Sundays.