Family plans: Kid-friendly cafe expands in crisis

 Some people suggest that we can learn more about a business not by looking at its five-year plan but by– uh using its bathroom. If this is true, the sparkling facilities at C'Ville Coffee– where swimming blue ceramic tiles in the ladies' room give the illusion of stepping into an inviting pool surrounded by a lovely garden– suggest an owner who's a decision-maker with both an imagination and a sense of humor.

"This is our midlife crisis," admits owner Toan Nguyen, who just turned 40.

Five years ago, Nguyen was living in Paris and traveling all over Europe and Asia as a well-paid executive for a multinational technology company. Now he's a café owner who just completed an expansion that caters to the unsung family café market. While most local coffeehouses are filled with serious stares at laptops and philosophy texts, this one has a toy box and a play zone.

Kristin Breen and her two-year-old son Kevin visit C'Ville Coffee often with their Wednesday morning playgroup.

"It's a great location," says Breen. "They have a nice little corner separate from the tables where kids can go off by themselves and play, while the moms can sit back and relax with a cup of coffee and talk."

Nguyen has a degree in architecture and an MBA from UVA's Darden Graduate School of Business. He also has a daughter, whom he didn't see much of in those first ephemeral years of her life.

With another child on the way, Nguyen decided some changes needed to be made. So he and his family returned to Charlottesville, where he started Shelf Life, a small furniture design business.

It was his daughter Hattie's idea to add a little smoothie bar and coffee shop in the extra space next to the Shelf Life studio. Hattie, who was eight at the time, came up with the name "C'Ville Coffee," too.

"When I was in school," Nguyen explains, "I used to take Hattie to Greenberry's. But everything there is breakable. She couldn't run around."

When he started his own shop, he wanted it to be a place where folks with kids could come and relax without having to worry about what their toddlers were getting into.

When this family-friendly venue opened two years ago, word spread fast through the area's young families. C'Ville Coffee was such a hit that Nguyen closed Shelf Life this past May in order to focus more of his efforts on his little side business.

This summer Nguyen started serving sandwiches at lunchtime. Breakfast sandwiches are next. This month he will open a quiet zone in the space formerly occupied by Shelf Life, offering community groups and others a comfy place to meet. Plans are also in the works for creating an outdoor patio space in front of the building.

"We wanted this to be Charlottesville's living room," Nguyen declares.

For a midlife crisis, that seems better than a red sports car.

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