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Nostalgia and good food on the menu

SWISHER — “It’s hard to duplicate the feel of an old building,” Karen Vondracek said while sitting in the middle of the Kava House and Café in downtown Swisher.
Vondracek and co-owner (and sister in-law) Julie Popelka (along with their husbands Craig and Jim) know first-hand what an old building feels like, having taken possession of the former Holets’ General Store in November 2007. After a year of extensive renovation to the wooden building built in 1914, the foursome opened the door to their coffee house/café/ice cream parlor one year later.
“We saw a need for a place to gather, a place for people of all ages to come together,” Vondracek said. “A place where kids could get an old-fashioned malt, a place where they could go and their parents would feel comfortable with it,” she added. Her husband Craig also has a desire to return Swisher to how it was during his youth, with thriving businesses throughout the downtown area. The Vondracek’s own Swisher Feed & Lumber across the street from the coffee house, and were confronted with empty storefronts and a historic building facing the potential of demolition. “We really wanted to save it and give it life again,” Vondracek said.
The Vondraceks enlisted the Popelkas and the adventure began. Several businesses had called the building home over the years, and it had stood partially vacant for about 10 years, leading to a major renovation effort. All windows and doors needed replacement, as did a portion of the wood siding. The hardwood floors were also repaired and rejuvenated. To meet contemporary standards and codes, all new plumbing fixtures had to be installed, and the structure brought up to accessibility requirements.
The efforts– at times rewarding, other times discouraging– seem to have paid off.
“This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Vondracek said. “It was a very expensive and time consuming endeavor,” she added. Vondracek lamented there is “…very little incentive to renovate and occupy an old building and make a go of it. There are lots of hoops to jump through when starting a new business in an old building.”
Given the current economic climate, she said “had we waited any later, I’m not sure we would’ve done it.”
Fortunately, in the two months Kava House & Café has been open, business has been very good, with lots of word-of-mouth advertising. As the only place to eat in Swisher, the community has been very supportive of the new venture. Many Cedar Rapids and Iowa City residents have made the trek, and the place has become popular with the local businesses and people from around the area.
“The town has been tremendous,” Popelka said. The ladies noted many residents come in for a cup of coffee and a pastry, then sit for hours to visit. “The atmosphere is very warm, very reminiscent of Grandma’s home,” she added.
Kava House & Café features an ever-changing selection of homemade pastries, including Czech kolaches, to go with their variety of coffees. For commuters heading to Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, the coffee and pastries are available to-go. Two homemade soups of the day are featured, along with a variety of sandwiches ranging from an all-beef Maid-Rite on a homemade bun, to a veggie sandwich on whole wheat, or even a grilled peanut butter and jelly. Popelka, a Cedar Rapids firefighter, conceded with a smile that her crewmates serve as a willing testing ground for new soup recipes.
“Bottom line, the food is good,” Vondracek said confidently. Popelka added, “We offer good food in a very comfortable place.”
Saturday evenings see dinner specials, and patrons are welcome to bring in a bottle of wine to enjoy with their dinner for a small corking fee. An antique, yet fully functional malt machine in conjunction with an array of ice cream adds a vintage soda fountain to the shop. Bulk coffee and packets of gourmet hot chocolate mixes are available for purchase along with a selection of hand-made gifts and old-fashioned candy.
Vondracek and Popelka heaped lavish praise upon their staff, family, and friends for helping out.
“They all bring different strengths and backgrounds, it all works together. They also want to see this thing succeed,” said Vondracek.
Pointing to a work of art on the wall with the words “random moment,” Popelka said it summed up their philosophy.
“Share a random moment. Come in. Spend some time with us,” she said.
Kava House & Café is located at 122 2nd St. SE in downtown Swisher.
Closed on Mondays, they are open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Saturday hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday hours are 10 a.m. to 4 pm.
Telephone: (319) 857-5000