Petaluma’s Grand Central Café serves cacao, empanadas, and family fun.
Photos – Paige Green Photography
Grand Central Cafe is more than a coffee shop. Owners Natalie and Juan Carlos Vinueza opened it during the waning days of the pandemic, and what began conceptually as a cafe, evolved into a colorful business that serves coffees and mochas as well as organic empanadas, and sells imported Ecuadorian cacao and artisanal items. A large riverfront area with awnings, hammocks and chairs provides outdoor seating.
Juan Carlos describes the business, which combines his restaurant experience and Ecuadorian cultural connections with Natalie’s theater arts background, as “a unique concept.” Originally from Ecuador, he moved to New York City where he managed restaurants for 15 years. Natalie, a native Petaluman, studied acting at UC Santa Barbara and theater arts at NYU.
The two met while working at a French brasserie on the Upper East Side in 2009. From there, they eventually moved to LA, where they started an Ecuadorian cacao import/export business while Natalie pursued acting. They had a child and moved to Petaluma when Covid hit.
“Honestly, when we moved here, we thought it would be a few months and then we’d move back to LA because I was an actor,” Natalie says. “But the whole industry shut down and I had just had a baby nine months prior.”
She credits her father, Mitchell Kauk, with planting the idea for the cafe in their heads. In fact, Natalie’s parents own the physical therapy clinic on the corner of East D and Weller streets, and first noticed the “for rent” sign on the space a few doors down, where the cafe now sits. Once Juan Carlos and Natalie started the business, it took on a life of its own and began growing, well, organically.
Juan Carlos is clear that quality food and customer service are of utmost importance to him. Having now been in the cacao import business for 10 years, he is passionate about bringing Ecuadorian cacao to America.
“Ecuador produces the finest cacao on the planet but has exported it for generations, where it’s made into chocolate by other nations,” he says. But that trend is changing. Juan Carlos has teamed up with a business in Ecuador that exports chocolate made from homegrown cacao, and Grand Central now sells their award-winning Ecuadorian “Fino de Aroma” chocolate bars.
“We feel very passionate [about selling] a tree-to-bar chocolate,” Natalie says.
Juan Carlos oversees the baking of the artisanal empanadas and crafts the cafe’s drinks from the finest South American coffee and Ecuadorian cacao. “Most places, when you get a mocha, they use syrup. We use actual cacao powders,” Natalie says. The unique taste and kick of pure cacao powder is noticeable in their drinks.
“For me cacao is health, cacao is happiness,” says Juan Carlos.
They now also sell artisanal items, including Ecuadorian alpaca wool blankets, ponchos, sweaters, hammocks and purses. His favorite product is the “ecoffeel,” a foldable, wooden drip coffee maker that he designed and that he imports from Ecuador, where it’s made by hand. The unit’s organic, washable cotton filter lasts one year.
The two chose the name Grand Central Cafe partly because the light and airy wooden building itself was once a train station. But Grand Central also refers to New York City, where the couple met; to Grand Central Station itself, a historic meeting place; and to the meeting place that their cafe has become.
The cafe’s location has special significance to both of them. “Geographically, it is literally the bridge between the East and West sides [of Petaluma], and for us it was very important to create a space that was inclusive to all socioeconomic levels and also cultures,” Natalie says.
Grand Central, with its wide indoor and outdoor spaces, is a haven for families with kids, and hosts weekly children’s story times and art play classes. Live music sometimes fills the air, and customers are welcome to place their orders in Spanish.
“For me, it is very important to give our customers an experience,” says Juan Carlos. “We are not just a typical coffee shop. We want to give an experience with our products, with our quality, with our service.”
Natalie adds, “One of the best compliments we ever got was when someone came in and said, ‘I feel like I’m still on vacation.’”
226 Weller St., Petaluma
Open Mon-Fri 7am to 3pm
Sat-Sun 8am to 3pm
Free unlimited parking