CROWN POINT — When Mia Augsburger, a junior at Crown Point High School, walked into Cafe Fresco about a year ago, she wasn’t expecting a song or so many smiles from strangers.

It was Augsburger’s Sweet 16, and she wanted to celebrate over a laid-back cup of coffee after school with a friend. What happened next at the cafe on the west side of the Crown Point square set off a chain of events Augsburger calls the best mistake she’s ever made.

She and her friend were going to a different cafe on the square, but when that shop was busy, they popped into Cafe Fresco where Augsburger said 20 to 30 students her age were meeting for Northwest Indiana’s Young Life group.

Immediately, Augsburger said, the Young Life teens approached her asking if she could share three interesting things about herself — one of those things she shared was that it was her birthday, sending the group of a couple dozen teens she’d never met into an impromptu performance of "Happy Birthday," sung Applebee’s-style.

“I just started talking to all of these kids,” Augsburger said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before — especially in a public place.”

Several months later after her chance encounter with Young Life, Augsburger joined the faith-based youth group and became a Cafe Fresco regular. In fact, she spent so much time in the cafe last summer, that owner Breanne Zolfo offered her a job, Augsburger said.

“You’re here every day,” the teen said Zolfo told her. “You might as well just work here.”

Today, Augsburger credits Cafe Fresco, at 1 N. Court St., with not only taking a chance on her as an employee, but also bringing new friendship into her life, and faith back to her family.

“I’ve always thought since middle school it’s been welcoming to me,” Augsburger said. “Cafe Fresco is a second home.”

It is just that community spirit and whimsy that Zolfo prides herself on — and have attracted interest beyond Crown Point. Zolfo said she and her shop will be featured soon on a segment of the "CBS This Morning."

The TV crew filmed at the business on Tuesday.

"It was great to have all of the support of the community and have everyone who was here from the start there," Zolfo said.

Connecting the Crown Point community

As Cafe Fresco grew, so did its reach in the community.

In the early days, it started with handwritten notes and a tip jar that snowballed into a sprawling initiative called “Community Love.”

It began with acts of kindness prompted by personalized messages left on each coffee sleeve of a hot drink.

When baristas hit a slow shift, they would use their downtime to doodle challenges or messages of encouragement on the cardboard sleeves with a Sharpie pen — notes like, “Do one act of kindness each day of the year and change 365 lives,” and, “If you have the courage to begin, you have the courage to succeed” — that soon became synonymous with the shop.

The sleeves quickly caught on with customers, and the cafe shifted from writing 10 kindness sleeves a day to planning ahead and giving away some 200 inspirational messages a day.

"It's cool to see that they're carrying a piece of the cafe with them," Zolfo said.

"For them to come back and say, 'It really made a difference,' we know that what we're doing is right, because we're having that small impact on people."

Cafe Fresco practices what it preaches, putting proceeds from a tip jar at the cafe’s register entirely back into the community.

Every week, the cafe donates the tips to a cause, organization or individual in need. Every month, the cafe surprises an unsuspecting shopper at the Merrillville Aldi store by buying their groceries.

Zolfo said she cried the first time one of these “Community Love” recipients stopped by the coffee shop. The cafe purchased a bicycle for a man who was homeless, providing him transportation to a new job at a local Speedway gas station, which allowed him to begin renting an apartment.

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“You don’t realize what you take for granted,” Zolfo said.

“They're my inspiration and motivation, they're what inspires me all the time, because it's just so many wonderful people who come into the cafe and become part of our family.”

And as Cafe Fresco extended a hand to the community, Crown Point gave back to the cafe.

Regulars pitched in to create or donate furniture for the shop. Over the holidays, Crown Point police Officer Robert Ballas, a cafe regular, and his dad surprised Zolfo with a renovated restroom for the Cafe Fresco staff and customers. Completed with tile and a new vanity, the restroom was a small act Ballas said he hoped to give to someone who’s spent so much of her own time giving back to the community.

“There’s a lot of cafes, a lot of places you can get coffee, a lot of places you can get tea,” Ballas said. “Bre is going to treat you like family even if she doesn’t know your name, and I think that’s what makes her business go a bar above the rest.”

Beginning on a whim

In her six years owning and operating the cafe, Zolfo has taken a personal interest in her customers.

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She’s seen children grow, friends get married and regulars start their families. Each life event Zolfo watches is a celebration of the cafe’s “Fresco Family” — the name Zolfo has affectionately given to the coffee shop’s collection of staff and regular customers.

Those who know Zolfo well describe it as the vision she’s had all along — to slow things down and bring the community together over coffee. But the 31-year-old business owner didn’t expect a future in the coffee business.

Shortly after finishing her studies — Zolfo has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in English — she saw a posting for a space at the corner of Court and Joliet streets to be sold in a sheriff’s auction sale.

On a whim, she decided to put in a bid for the building, a former Fiesta Mexico restaurant. The space had a small kitchen fire in 2010, Zolfo said, driving away other bidders and landing her the spot.

For the first two years, she rented out the apartment upstairs and taught English as Second Language classes in a backroom downstairs.

She didn’t know much about coffee and to this day is more of a decaf drinker but, when the opportunity presented itself — a man in Sarasota, Florida, who planned to sell Zolfo a refrigerator for her upstairs tenant also happened to be closing his own cafe and selling off a couple thousand dollars’ worth of cafe equipment — Zolfo took a chance.

She opened Cafe Fresco in summer 2013 with three high-top tables and two frozen yogurt machines. She took classes at Intelligentsia in Chicago to learn the finer points of coffee roasting, and made a pledge not to spend a dime on advertising. She hoped instead to grow her business organically through her own social media and word of mouth.

And it worked. That first summer the cafe opened, Zolfo said the business “took off like crazy.” The cafe has a rotating seasonal menu and has experimented with a slew of different food options, ranging from frozen yogurt in the summer to locally sourced bakery items.

From lattes to bubble tea, each barista has a selected special. Zolfo’s favorite, the aptly named “Cafe Breanne,” is a soy-based espresso drink with cinnamon and honey.

Zolfo decided early on to handpick her staff. She doesn’t advertise openings or post job listings online. Most of her employees, like Augsburger, Zolfo said she met in her shop or out in the community — each with their own story and reason for what brought them into the cafe.

When Kim Govert lost her husband unexpectedly, a friend was there to pick her up and take her out for coffee. That coffee turned into a casual conversation with Zolfo, a complete stranger, who offered Govert a position on the spot.

Govert, who hadn’t worked for years, said joining Cafe Fresco has brought new meaning to her life.

“Breanne has been the light in my life when it was the darkest,” Govert said. “Now I feel like I matter.”

In the future, Zolfo said she'd like to expand into communities beyond Crown Point. She has her eye on the Miller neighborhood in Gary, but said she's unsure how she'd like to expand. She tried once with a store in Munster, but closed shop to focus on the Crown Point area. However, Zolfo said she's open to unexpected opportunities.

"This is exactly what I want to do and exactly where I want to be," Zolfo said. And if there are anymore sheriff's sales, "I'll be at the auction," she said with a laugh.

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.