The Place Has Something

Sabine Blaese modeled Cafe Passé after a gathering spot in her German hometown

At first glance, CafePassé looks like most coffee shops on Fourth Avenue.

It is small and artsy, and serves espresso, drip coffee and a smattering of breakfast and lunch items. Red tables dot the sidewalk in front of the small doorway where a large hanging metal sign reads, "Sabine's Cafe Passé Tucson." Inside, wooden tables are pushed against the walls to create a sliver of a pathway toward the bar and a glass case containing homemade scones and other items.

The space inside is small, and used to be smaller: In May, owner Sabine Blaese purchased what was formerly a tie-dye shop next door and—in a mere three weeks—converted it into what is now additional café seating and a triad of shops called the Little Village.

This story neither starts nor ends with the recent addition of the Little Village. It actually begins thousands of miles away, years ago, in a small town in Germany.

"Cafe Passé, the original one, is in my hometown in Germany. I grew up there," said Blaese. "It was my favorite place ever, and it was also my first job when I was 16. I started bartending and waiting tables there. I come from a very small town in Germany—very quaint, with the old market square and the old renaissance buildings, and Cafe Passé was smack in the middle, tucked in the corner. And it was tiny. It was a café during the day and a bar at night. It just had something. Some places have it, and some places don't, try as hard as they may. It had it; not sure what it was. But it was my home—my home away from home."

When Blaese was 22, she left for New York, where she pursued an acting career, which came with a necessary side of restaurant work. She recalls nights when she would sit on her balcony with her boyfriend and count the planes as they flew over the building where she lived: Every 18 seconds, another would fly into or out of LaGuardia Airport.

"New York is always fucking noisy. It's never quiet. You sit there fantasizing, 'I wonder what New York would be like when it's quiet,' but, of course, you don't think it's ever going to happen—ever.

"Well, then it happened. There were no airplanes, no traffic, no nothing. Just quiet."

When Sept. 11 happened, an exodus from New York followed. "New York had changed, not so much the city, but life in the city was suddenly very different," Blaese said.

Blaese's best friend convinced her in a year's time to move to Tucson, citing the possibility of owning a horse as a main means of persuasion. She worked as a barista at ITL coffee shop, which was owned by a friend who had also moved from the Big Apple to the Old Pueblo.

About a year before Cafe Passé Tucson was born, Blaese took a trip back to her hometown, as she does once a year or so.

"The tradition in my hometown is that on Saturday mornings, you go to the farmers' market, buy all your produce and vegetables, and afterwards, you meet at Passé and have a champagne. So I'm pushing my stroller—my baby was little then—across the market square, and I see Passé in flames. It had burned all night and was still burning. And I just stood there, and I couldn't believe it. I was devastated. I just stood there and cried my eyes out. I was heartbroken. That can't be rebuilt. That's an old, old building, and it just burned to the ground."

When the owner of ITL decided to sell in 2006, he offered the place to Blaese. She never imagined she might end up owning a cafe, but then again, she had worked in restaurants most of her life.

Her first thought was to rename the space. Really, she didn't have a choice.

"I thought if I am going to have my own cafe, which is the last thing I thought I would ever do, it has to be Passé. So I have my own Passé. If I can't have that one (in my hometown), I will have my own."

People have told her that something about her cafe reminds them of New York; others have said Europe. Either way, after four years, the cafe is thriving. The menu includes consistently healthy, fresh, good food.

The expansion of the space has brought about new prospects for the cafe and Fourth Avenue. Tabatha Christian, Cafe Passé's first employee, has spent much of her time in Tucson working on the Avenue. When ITL went Passé, she approached her former barista, Blaese, and offered up her services, which were readily accepted. Having been Blaese's self proclaimed "right and left hand" from the start, in May, when Cafe Passé expanded, it was only natural that Christian should run a portion of the space next door. She opened up a small curiosity shop, which she named the Wooden Tooth.

"We had always really wanted this space," Christian said. "I mean, she and I would look over the fence of the backyard and dream about having all this additional space, never really considering the interior. It was really hard to visualize what this could be when it was just wrought with tie-dye."

The space ended up being a shared market place of sorts. The Ventana Gallery and a small satellite shop of Bohemia accompany the Wooden Tooth in the inside space, and the yard expands into a shared courtyard for both the cafe and the Little Village.

Ideas for the future include turning the backyard into a beer garden. Blaese said that the cafe will never turn into a full-fledged restaurant, but that they will adjust the menu to serve what goes good with beer and wine.

"It is just going to get better," Christian promised. "We don't even know what we are in for."

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