Good Food Meets Good Company in Crown Heights

Lakou Café serves up healthy fare and a sense of community

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Lawyer-turn-entrepreneur Cassandre Davilmar, along with her business partner, Isiah Michael, saw something missing in her neighborhood: a place for healthy-minded people to gather for camaraderie and movie nights. She turned to Sweeten, a free service matching business owners with vetted general contractors, to find a general contractor who would work with her and her interior designer. From greenery and bright colors to wicker light fixtures, they created a casual outdoor backyard indoors—an “oasis” between two major subway lines on bustling Utica Avenue. Specialties of the house: The Lakou Delight smoothie, Haitian patties, and PB&G (Haitian peanut butter and ginger jam) sweet crepe.

PROJECT: Lakou Café opens its first location in the Weeksville neighborhood (also part of Crown Heights)

LOCATION: 195 Utica Avenue, Brooklyn, New York

RENOVATION TEAM: Sweeten general contractor and interior designer Elisa Shankle of Simplexity Designs

INTERVIEW WITH: Owner Cassandre Davilmar

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(Above) The café hosts community events, such as game and movie nights. (Check out the pull-down screen on the ceiling!)

Sweeten: What is your company and where did the idea come from?

Cassandre: Our company is Lakou Café. I’ve been living in Weeksville, which is a community in Crown Heights that’s actually the first free black community. I noticed there were a lot of people interested in their health with local gyms and parks for exercising, but there wasn’t a good variety of healthy food options. I also felt there weren’t many community spaces in the area. I wanted to create a space where somebody can get something light to eat and at the same time get to know the people in their community.

Sweeten: How did you move from the legal profession to become an entrepreneur?

Cassandre: I’ve always had an interest in business, but from childhood, I had a desire to be a lawyer because I wanted to help advance my community. While in law school, I developed my narrative that would lead me to entrepreneurship. I chose a career in corporate law working on private equity transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and leveraged buyouts. This gave me a deeper look at how CEOs and upper-level management evaluate strategic business decisions. I also got a deeper understanding of business modeling and financial projections.

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Check out Cassandre’s video below:

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With these tools in my back pocket, I was armed to tackle my next goal of entrepreneurship. I find it rewarding to imagine something, build it, and work on it until it succeeds (a constant challenge!). Also, it’s amazing to provide value to customers and to help employees find gainful employment. It may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. In my specific case, my neighborhood needed a beautiful place for fellowship and I’m glad I’m able to provide an oasis for them.

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Sweeten: How does the new space design represent your brand?

Cassandre: My family is from Haiti, and Lakou is a Haitian word that means backyard or courtyard. It’s a place where the community hangs out, where religious ceremonies take place, where herbs are grown, where people play, or just chill. I thought that was a fitting name for the space that I wanted to create.

We really wanted to be on the Utica strip, because it’s between two main train lines, where there are tons of people who walk by every day, but unfortunately, we couldn’t find an actual backyard space. So we brought the outdoors inside with lots of plants and tables that look like tree trunks. We wanted a contemporary feel and added a cool twist like wicker lighting instead of wicker chairs. Bright colors like green or natural stone remind you of the outside. I think we did a good job making it feel a little bit like an escape.

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Sweeten: Did your Sweeten contractor help you with any part of the design?

Cassandre: We wanted a really long floating bench that’s probably about 20 feet. Our contractor was concerned that the weight of it might be a bit much, but we didn’t want a block bench. The wall that it was on originally didn’t have the brick exposed yet; we got rid of some it above the bench but not below. It kind of formed a little shelf underneath it so that we could place a bench on top and it would appear to be floating. It was great that he came up with the idea to help us get the aesthetic we wanted and still be able to support a lot of bodies and weight.

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Sweeten: How was your experience working with Sweeten?

Cassandre: I originally stumbled on Sweeten when I was just looking for contractors online. The contractor process is a bit more difficult mainly because a lot of people don’t want to refer contractors to you because they might have had a bad experience. Or some people feel even though a contractor had been good with them, they may not be good with me.

Sweeten’s Client Services reached out to us after I filled out their form online. They explained the process to me, asked more about what we were trying to do, and what our budget was. They found five or six contractors they thought would be a good fit for us to reach out to. It also felt a bit like a safety net. If a contractor wasn’t responsive, I could reach out to Sweeten.

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We had a lot of delays because of the signing of the lease, but Sweeten checked in on us every now and then to see where we were with that. When we finally did begin the bidding process, Sweeten offered for us to send them all the bids to compare the information. In retrospect, I probably would have utilized that more.

The most valuable thing about the service is it seems like the contractors really appreciate being a part of the Sweeten network and they don’t want to jeopardize that in any way. So their goal is to make me as happy as they can. I didn’t have a strong fear that if the project was done and things weren’t perfect—which they’re never going to be completely perfect—that I’d never hear from this contractor again. That’s probably the biggest pro in my experience with Sweeten.

Stop by Lakou Café for a smoothie, one of their community gatherings, or just a bit of “outdoor” time.

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Thinking of opening your own eatery? Check out our guide on the cost breakdown to open a restaurant.

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