A little bit of Lopez in New York: Iris Café

Rachel Graville at the door of her new business in New York.

Rachel Graville at the door of her new business in New York.

By Iris Graville

Special to the Islands’ Sounder

A popular song claims that if you can make it New York you’ll make it anywhere. If that’s true, then the future looks bright for Lopezian Rachel Graville and her new business in Brooklyn, Iris Café.

Graville, daughter of Iris and Jerry Graville of Lopez, moved to New York in 2007 for an internship with Slow Food, an international organization started in Italy in the 1980s to protest “fast food.” By the time her internship was over, Rachel was hooked on New York, having mastered the subway system and discovered that New York’s restaurant scene was embracing the Slow Food philosophy of local, seasonal cooking. When an investor approached her last year to open a café, she jumped at the opportunity.

The seeds for the venture were planted on Lopez, though.

While in college, Rachel, a 2000 graduate of Lopez Island High School, came back to Lopez in the summer to work at Vita’s.

“Working with Joyce [Brinar, Vita’s owner] was my version of cooking school,” she says. “That’s where I learned all the basic cooking techniques.”

She put her Vita’s cooking experience to good use her senior year of college as co-manager of the local food co-op café. There, she learned about developing menus, ordering supplies, and hiring and training staff.

“I had my own ideas about concept, menu, and food sources for restaurants,” she says, “and I dreamed about someday trying them out in my own business.”

Last fall, Rachel found an ideal location in a store-front on a cobblestone street in Brooklyn Heights.

“I really liked the look of this building, and it felt like the neighborhood needed a gathering place,” she said.

The café seats 22 at small tables with mismatched wood chairs. Daylight streams in through bay windows and scents of cinnamon, butter, chocolate, and smoked ham from the open kitchen linger in the air. Exposed brick walls are adorned with Summer Moon Scriver’s photographs of the hands of a number of Lopezians from the book, “Hands at Work,” written and published by Rachel’s mother.

“At Iris Café, I’m drawing on my work experience with a number of Lopez businesses,” Rachel explains, including Vita’s, Isabel’s Espresso, and Fish Bay Mercantile.

A small display case is brimming with Hudson Valley eggs, Vermont butter, and milk in glass bottles. A defunct ice box includes treats like Stumptown whole bean coffee, hand-made chocolates, and Iris Café grits mix.

Not only people in Brooklyn Heights have noticed Iris Café. In February, “New York Magazine” named it Best Café for 2010, and last month it made the “New York Times” list of “Best Coffee Places in New York and Brooklyn.”

It seems that in New York, a little bit of Lopez is a key to success.