Friendly service and quality products are important to Maria Solano, the owner and operator of Maria’s Café of both Chester and Long Valley. It’s what she bases her entire business model around.
“Yes, we do want to make money, but I’m happy if the customer is happy,” Solano said. “If the customer is happy, they’re going to tell others. If the product is fresh and it’s clean, I’m happy with that.”
Solano herself started out as a customer in search of fresh, high-quality baked goods. A 16-year resident of Chester, Solano opened up the specialty bake shop right next to her new café in Chester as a means of providing the quality she sought.
“I was always looking for really good, crusty breads and there was nothing that I was really happy with,” Solano said. “I come from a long line of restaurants, food and coffee, so I decided to open a little Italian specialty store and introduce Italian specialty products, whether it be pasta, cheeses or all kinds of items that you wouldn’t find around. That went well, and then in Long Valley, I was presented with that opportunity.”
“That opportunity” was the first Maria’s Café, which Solano described as an “old world European Café”, in Long Valley’s renowned Restaurant Village.
“I created a very cozy, comfortable atmosphere, like you’re sitting in someone’s home,” Solano said. “We do homemade soups; everything’s homemade and I bake a lot of my own stuff.”
The new Chester café was created in the same vein, serving breakfast items, pastries and coffee in the morning and soups, salads and sandwiches around lunchtime, all in a comfortable atmosphere.
“The coffee shop (located at the current Chester location) was shut down. I was flip-flopping with the idea of ‘should I or should I not (purchase the property)?’ Solano said. “I went ahead with it, cleaned it up – because it needed some cleaning – and we basically do a nice, comfortable place where you can come in and get a fresh cup of coffee.”
All three locations – the two cafes and the specialty shop in Chester – plan to introduce authentic Italian sauces and other items in the near future and, Solano hopes, Maria’s will become a one-stop shop for anyone seeking fresh, high-quality Italian ingredients for a reasonable price.
“People are coming in, and even with a two-dollar loaf of bread, they’re asking themselves if they’re going to consume the entire loaf. You’re talking about a two dollar item,” Solano said. “That’s why I think it’s important that if a customer is going to spend money for an item that it’s going to be fresh and it’s going to be priced where they can afford it. At the end of the day, it’s always ‘are they going to be happy with that?’ That’s the bottom line. I want the customers to be satisfied with the product.”
Those points, coupled with the friendly atmosphere, are what have Maria’s doing so well despite the state of the ecomony.
“There’s a lot of competition out there, and you’ve got to ask yourself why they should come here. I think, at all of my locations, people feel very welcome,” Solano said. “We know most of the customers by first name, and that’s nice. I think a lot of the other places are like, ‘OK, let’s open the door and see how much money we can make.’”
That’s not the case in Chester or Long Valley, though, where Maria’s, other shops and the surrounding communities are attempting to make all who visit feel as at home as possible during their stay.
“I’m going to try to work with the schools and other businesses around here. I think we need to work with one another. I always say, ‘You need to go to that store and see what they have,’” Solano said. “We all work with one another, and that’s what you want. You want the customers, when they walk up and down, to say, ‘They were really nice. Let’s go back to that small town.’”