Cafe Frieda's novel approach: No free WiFi and you meet people

Co-founder of FRIEDA Thomas Steinborn (left) serves a slice of cake to Sharon Haymie (center) and Helen Grady before the the two ladies began their book club meeting on Thursday, May 18, 2017. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Join a drawing class, a social media workshop, speak French or Yiddish, screen a film, play backgammon — or even start an activity of your own – at Café Frieda, the brainchild of two transplants to Philadelphia on 320 Walnut St.

The best part? You’ll mix and mingle with all age groups, as Café Frieda encourages seniors to work at the cafe, serves pastries made by retirees, and generally aims for young and older people to hang out together.

Café Frieda is no ordinary coffee shop: You won’t find entrepreneurs-in-training glued to laptops or millennials in headphones not making eye contact, à la every modern Starbucks.

The whole point of Café Frieda is just that – making human contact, joining a painting or book club, speaking German or Chinese with like-minded folks, and possibly bringing your kids or grandkids for a summer class in origami dinosaurs, bookbinding, and puppetry.

Oh, and by the way, the space on Third and Walnut, between Old St. Joseph’s Church and the Ritz movie theater, serves food and goodies concocted by a Cordon Bleu-trained chef.

Think Viennese coffeehouse meets salon/modern art gallery: Along the soaring white walls hang works by local artists, some of whom also wait tables.

From left: Gay Walling, Ruth Miller, and Carole Mablekos sketch and snack at Frieda on the 300 block of Walnut Street. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

 

 

 

At the door, you may be greeted by Clementina “Tina” Caruso, 89, who works as a hostess for Café Frieda. She lives in Southwest Philadelphia but comes almost every day to don a blue linen shirt and black pants uniform to work at Café Frieda.

“I love it here,” she says, plus her daughter works at Cafe Frieda, making pastries in the kitchen.

The idea of Café Frieda, which opened in November 2015, sprang from the brain of Thomas Steinborn, a German émigré to the United States who named the spot after his grandmother. His partner David Wong trained in Paris as a chef and takes care of all things in the kitchen.

“We created a space, really, to reconnect generations,” he explained over coffee. Hence the café’s website name (www.friedaforgenerations.com), where guests can find a menu, plus a full schedule of all the events and classes.

Why create a spot for all of America’s generations?

“We realized that people are living longer, and people like my mother and grandmother don’t just want to shuffle off to a retirement home. I thought, ‘Let’s do something for them’ like this café,” he said. If they have leftovers, the café donates the muffins, jams, and other baked goods to the Old St. Joseph’s Church senior center.

Steinborn also reached out to senior centers to find older workers. “They need extra income, and we want them in our space,” Steinborn said. For instance, a retired art teacher now gives origami workshops, and another retiree teaches sewing.

Last year during Passover, Café Frieda hosted an open seder to celebrate the holiday, and the list grew to 60 people and a wait list.

“It’s grown because it’s relaxed and people feel safe,” he added.

The cafe currently hosts 15 classes, plus various events ranging from book clubs to film screenings. A few have a fee, such as the $45 charge for a nutrition workshop. Most events are free, though the cafe has a cover charge.

The Meet the Artist series is the cafe’s largest, attracting as many as 80 people. Recently, the two owners hosted an 89-year-old artist to show her work in an exhibition, showing her pieces from “when she was at Moore College [of Art & Design] – before it was called Moore – to the current day. People could really see the artist’s process through watching her work throughout her life.”

Even Steinborn’s mother has come to visit from Germany, and “she likes it. As the body ages, we can maintain the spirit and the laughs. The ladies here behave like little girls sometimes, and why shouldn’t they?” he adds.

More recently, Café Frieda has been extending its work into community outreach programs, bringing in social media and computer volunteers to help seniors learn about their phones and tablets and navigate sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Café Frieda also hosts community suppers and poetry workshops.

It’s interesting that very few people bring computers — many are reading books over drinks, because there’s no free WiFi.

“Frieda is a social experiment,” Steinborn explains. “The growing success of Frieda leads us to believe that there may be a need for a Frieda somewhere else.”

Tina Caruso (left), hostess at Frieda, laughs with Bonnie Drescher before Drescher sat with her art sketching group on a recent Thursday. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Caruso likes the interactivity.

“I don’t go to other places like Starbucks. No one talks there!”

She greets and seats newcomers, and now has many friends through the café.

Julie Jensen Bryan, a local photographer who has lived in Society Hill Towers since 1989, loves to drift over from her apartment and feast on the almond orange cake and discover what else is happening at Café Frieda.

“It’s just lovely here,” she said.