Outlook 2023: New owners of MochaLisa’s in Clifton Park add books, games to cozy café

MochaLisa’s Caffe owners, from left, Colin Hughes, Alan Hughes, Nicole Van Zandt and Roland Van Zandt pose for a photo inside the Clifton Park cafe recently
MochaLisa’s Caffe owners, from left, Colin Hughes, Alan Hughes, Nicole Van Zandt and Roland Van Zandt pose for a photo inside the Clifton Park cafe recently
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CLIFTON PARK – Nicole Van Zandt has been measuring her time a bit differently since she, her husband and two of their longtime friends took over MochaLisa’s Caffe last fall.

“I started joking with my coworkers at my full-time job that I measure my time in scones at this point,” Van Zandt said.

It’s one of the many things that have changed for the group, which includes Nicole’s husband, Roland Van Zandt, and their friends Colin and Alan Hughes, who are brothers. They’ve had to learn not only how to run a cafe but also design a new space for it, all while juggling full-time jobs unrelated to the cafe.

They’ve all been going to MochaLisa’s since they were in their teens growing up in Clifton Park, and it was where Nicole and Roland had their first date.

The cozy cafe was first opened in 2005 by Michael Seriani and was bought by Kari Cook in 2015. It’s remained a community staple over the years, serving breakfast and lunch, and hosting community events.

When the Hughes brothers and the Van Zandts heard the Clifton Park cafe was up for sale, they cautiously posed the idea of buying it.

“This has been the retirement dream for us [to own] a coffee-shop bookstore,” said Nicole, who also runs a home bake shop called The Bookish Bakery and works full time at Goldman Sachs.

“I thought a storefront would be great for this. But we realized it’s not fiscally responsible to just buy a cafe. Then Alan texted Roland, ‘Hey, did you see MochaLisa’s is for sale?’ So then we were just tossing it around as an idea,” she added.

Colin got on board, too, and within a few weeks they’d purchased the place. It came with one caveat: They’d have to move locations from one storefront in the Clifton Park Center Mall to another, located next to GameStop. After taking ownership of the cafe in November, they had only a few weeks to move.

“We had to redo the space in here to get everything ready to run a cafe,” Nicole said.

“And learn how to run a cafe,” Colin added.

None had direct barista experience. Colin also works at Goldman Sachs; Roland at PricewaterhouseCoopers; and Alan works for New York state, does real estate work and owns a few small businesses.

Needless to say, they had their hands full. Alan and Colin focused on renovating the new storefront, while Roland and Nicole concentrated on running the cafe.

“Those guys were doing a lot of the manual labor. Then we were figuring out the day-to-day things, like figuring out how to do inventory and what vendors we have,” Nicole said.

The learning curve was steep, and there were many nights with little to no sleep.

“It was a lot of Chipotle,” Nicole said.

“Caffeine and Chipotle,” Roland added.

Luckily, nearly all the employees who had worked at MochaLisa’s when they bought the business stayed on and helped guide them, and they’ve been able to hire a few more.

“We have a mix of people who are able to work basically full time and then people who are just on the weekends. We still are getting applications pretty regularly,” Nicole said.

Despite electrical and appliance issues that delayed their planned opening date, they were able to get up and running in December. While they stayed true to the MochaLisa’s menu and atmosphere, they added a selection of books for sale as well as board games.

“I love bookstores. I love reading. And there’s no bookstores around. You’re either going to Northshire in Saratoga or Barnes & Noble in Colonie,” Nicole said. “We had a space where we didn’t even have enough tables to fill. [We wondered] what else can we do to make this more of a place where people come and stay? The books are a draw for some people, or it’s an add-on for people who come for the coffee.”

There are several bookshelves filled with new and used books ranging from literary fiction to mysteries to young adult and more. Some of the shelves also boast popular tabletop games including Catan and Ticket to Ride, along with party games such as Code Names.

They’ve also hosted game nights at the cafe as well as trivia nights.

“The old MochaLisa’s, pre-COVID, had late-night events. So we knew that that was something that a lot of our customers wanted,” Roland said. “We had Harry Potter trivia that partnered up with a video game release at GameStop. That was a packed house. We had 76 people come through the door on a Monday evening, which was crazy.”

In the future they hope to hold book signings/events with local authors, have open mic nights and feature live music.

When it comes to the menu, they’ve continued to serve hearty breakfast sandwiches and other breakfast fare such as waffles, bagels and avocado toast. For lunch there are a variety of paninis, wraps and salads. While they brought much of the original menu with them, they’ve made small adjustments based on customer feedback.

“Part of what we wanted to do is gradual improvements,” Colin said. “So a lot of what we’ve done is trying to take the scientific method and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to tweak this. Was this a success?’ — instead of just throwing everything at it and then [wondering why] it didn’t work.”

“We had a lot of people ask for more vegetarian and vegan options. So we’ve added vegetarian breakfast sausage,” Nicole said.

They recently added vegan French toast and began offering gluten-free bread from Birch Baked in Troy.

They’ve also worked to foster a cozy atmosphere in which customers feel comfortable working, reading, getting together with friends or playing games.

“We wanted it to be a place to hang out, whether for you that means sitting having coffee, sitting with your friends, or whether that means sitting in the back room by yourself with one of the books,” Colin said.

“We never want people to feel like they’ve stayed past their limit. This is a place for you to come and camp out,” Nicole added. “There are regulars who pretty much work here the whole day and come up to the counter intermittently.”

There’s also no strict closing policy. “If you’re in the middle of a book or you’re finishing up your coffee, there’s no reason to get kicked out. We’re still here,” Roland said.

While opening and running the cafe has come with its challenges, the team said the community has been incredibly supportive.

“They’ve been a massive boost to us and all the work we put in,” Roland said.

MochaLisa’s is at 22 Clifton Country Road in Clifton Park. Hours are 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday. For information, visit mochalisa.com.

More Outlook 2023: Looking Ahead – Our annual report on Capital Region business

Categories: Clifton Park and Halfmoon, Food, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Outlook 2023

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