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Koo Koo Kafe serves a helping of originality

A cafe in a house welcomes hippies and free spirits, and, yes, even yuppies.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published July 15, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - There's something happening here at the Koo Koo Kafe, but even for owner Carla Bernhardt, what it is "ain't exactly clear."

"People say this is a concept, not a cafe," said Bernhardt, who opened the quirky coffee shop in May. "I don't really know. I just follow my heart."

In this 40th year since the Summer of Love, the Koo Koo Kafe, at 411 15th Ave. N, is embracing the hippie ethos in a modern context. Sitar music plays on the stereo and Janis Joplin watches over the front counter, but customers aren't a bunch of long-haired kids.

"They're Yippies and yuppies and established people," said Ray Rau, a Koo Koo regular who owns rental properties in surrounding neighborhoods.

Bernhardt, 51, sells coffee from Peoria and English tea with Persian roses, Middle Eastern foods and teapots from India, as well as handmade crafts from around the world. She said she caters to people looking for an authentic experience with an international twist.

"It's not the chain type of thing," said customer Jon Tuft, a financial adviser with Raymond James. "A lot of people who go there are baby boomers who are not really into Starbucks."

Bernhardt agrees that she has created the opposite of corporate coffee. Hers is a small, intimate space in a couple of overstuffed rooms on the first floor of a house. Between its living room quality and Bernhardt's zealous hospitality, customers say going there is like therapy.

"What Carla has is something very powerful," said Aradia Scott, a massage therapist who drops in often and will start offering massages there. "It's powerful to be able to relax."

Ironically, the cafe was born of pain. Bernhardt went through a difficult relationship that upset her so much, she said, she thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown. Which would be even more ironic because she is also a nurse who treats patients with dementia, schizophrenia and other mental health problems.

Bernhardt was an introvert who cared for her patients and went home alone. Her romance opened her up but ended abruptly when she found out the man was married.

"Things like that can make you bitter," she said. "I had to do something positive with it."

Friends brought the Tampa resident to St. Petersburg, and Bernhardt said the energy of the place matched her own, so she decided to open the cafe. The name comes from the nickname her boyfriend gave her, but she has turned that around: She sells T-shirts that say, "Who's Koo Koo Now?"

"I decided to channel the energy of unrequited love," she said. "The only thing I'm good at is giving people love, accepting them as they are. It's what I do for a living."

Everyone who enters the Koo Koo gets a hug from Bernhardt. She runs the shop entirely by herself, but customers sometimes chip in and help out. She said sometimes they give her money for nothing, just reach out and hand it to her.

"It's like a bunch of professional bohemians," said Mike Novilla, Bernhardt's landlord, who has an office above the cafe. "It's like a little oasis in the middle of the city."

Business has been steady, Bernhardt said, even though her only advertising consists of a couple of yard signs she posts near Crescent Lake. She wants to succeed, but not too much.

"I don't want a big restaurant," she said. "If it gets too big, it would take away from the atmosphere."

Bernhardt is expanding Koo Koo's offerings with an open-mike night for performers and a new hookah she'll set out for customers once she gets a tobacco license.

She is open to suggestions because she wants the cafe to be the place the customers want.

"What she's offering is what St. Pete is going to," said Rau of the new generation of retirees coming to the area. "She's almost a benchmark of the changes in demographics."

Bernhardt said she sees lots of people of her generation in the area and finds that they share her eclectic tastes. But she says the cafe appeals to all ages of people who want to share good company.

"We're all hippies in our hearts," she said. "We all want the world to be a better place."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Koo Koo Kafe

411 15th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

Phone: 821-1111

Hours: 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.