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On the afternoon of Effe Café’s first anniversary in a Cooper City gas station this month, lunch-rush customers ordered mojo pork sandwiches and congratulated chef-owners Nunzio Fuschillo and Patty Lopez for surviving a tough pandemic year.
Then the phone rang as Fuschillo pulled a tray of fresh sourdough loaves from the oven. It was their real-estate broker, bearing bad news: The deal for Effe’s new storefront a mile away had just fallen through when a competing bakery overbid for the lease.
“I wanted the couch, the bookshelves, the little café nook,” says Lopez, spooning house-made tomato jam into mason jars on Wednesday. “People were like, ‘Oh, it’s your anniversary, congrats!’ and we were like, ‘Well, now it’s all over.’ “
The news sent Effe Café’s customers into an uproar. Texts and DMs blitzed Lopez’s phone: “I just emailed the mayor of Cooper City!” one regular messaged them. Others sent volleys of pictures of empty storefronts up the street, around the corner, the next city over, accompanied by, “Did you check out this place in Miramar?”
“This vegan bakery on Griffin Road closed on Oct. 2, and we tried to get it,” Fuschillo says. “It was sold to someone else eight days later. You have to be fast.”
For Lopez and Fuschillo, the loss of Effe Café feels like a refrain of last year’s pandemic shutdowns. Laid off from cushy chef jobs at Michael Beltran’s Nave in Coconut Grove, the couple reset and rebuilt their lives in the back of a Marathon gas station at 10295 Stirling Road.
Their experimental pop-up went from 10 to 100 customers within a month, tantalizing with Instagram photos of Fuschillo’s Angus roast beef, marinated for 24 hours in brown sugar, yellow mustard, salt and pepper. Lopez, a pastry chef, held her own with house-made ham-and-spinach quiche, s’mores brownies, carrot cakes and toffee walnut sticky buns.
They pull it off inside an impressively small, 200-square-foot kitchen next to Marathon’s soda fountain machine. There’s a 14-inch flattop grill, Italian espresso machine, citrus juicer and a front pastry display stocked with rum cake and Sicilian-style pizza. Each morning at 5 a.m., Fuschillo rolls croissants by hand because their kitchen is too small to hold a dough-rolling machine. It takes an hour to roll 14 Cuban sandwich croissants (which looks exactly what it sounds like) for Friday’s special; as of Wednesday, some 75 pre-orders have rolled in.
“I’m going to make 90, but it won’t be enough,” Fuschillo says. “This place is all-consuming, but it’s been fascinating. At first we thought, who would order lobster rolls at a gas station for $18? Who would trust us that much? We sold all 20 lobster rolls the first day.”
If anything, Lopez reasons, they are perhaps victims of their own success. At Effe, Lopez, 37, and Fuschillo, 36, pump out a menu of grab-and-go comfort food that rotates daily. Last week, for example, Fuschillo learned to make kimchi to top his mojo pork sandwich, which is marinated for 48 hours in a citrus bath of sour orange, oregano and garlic. Once Effe Café closes in the afternoon, they juggle two school-age kids, Lola and Lucas. By 8 p.m., the kids are down but the couple are still awake, taking Instagram pre-orders and plotting the next day’s menu.
“The biggest problem for us is we got so popular, we couldn’t, like, think about anything else. If I’m making cakes all day and he’s rolling sourdough, which of us is negotiating a lease?” Lopez says.
Super-fan Noah Blaustein, who stopped by Effe Café for the lunch special – flaky, Neapolitan-style parigina pizza stuffed with provolone, spinach and caramelized onions – has been texting Lopez with possible storefronts every day.
“I’ve eaten my way systematically through the whole menu,” says Blaustein, of Miramar. “They’re disciples of all the great Miami restaurants. I’ll be so sad if they left. I support them with my stomach and wallet.”
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“And your morale,” Lopez chimes in, slipping a square slice of parigina pizza into a to-go box.
When Sarah Mendham, the chef at Kingshead Pub in Sunrise, first stopped in to pay for her gas fill-up, she couldn’t believe Effe Café baked its own bread.
“I said to myself, ‘Sure they do,’ ” says Mendham, of Cooper City. “But their sourdough is phenomenal, and they make their own roast beef, sauces, juices right here. I hope they find a financier.”
Without a physical location, the couple says they plan to continue Effe Café as a delivery-only business, taking pre-orders from Instagram. They’ll also look for a new storefront. But Lopez and Fuschillo agree on one thing: Effe Café is too important to ever consider doing anything else.
“I’d rather get a job at a post office than be a restaurant chef again,” Lopez says.
Effe Café, at 10295 Stirling Road, in Cooper City, will close on Saturday, Oct. 30. Call 954-680-0716 or go to Instagram @effe.cafe