Ora Stevens watches last week at the Uptown Cafe as another plate heads out to a table. Stevens and partner Nhan Nguyen, owners of Homestead Coffee & Bakery, recently bought the venerable Jefferson diner. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALDStevens and longtime Uptown cook Elaine McDowell experiment with potato cakes for a possible new addition to the cafe’s menu. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD“I always said I was going to own my own restaurant. I didn’t care how long it took me,” says Ora Stevens, who together with partner Nhan Nguyen are the new owners of the Uptown Cafe on State Street. Stevens has been reassuring regulars in his first month of ownership that not much is going to change. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD

A mainstay changes hands

New owners to turn the Uptown Cafe into a vegan fusion restaurant. Just kidding: The coffee will remain as regular and black as always

The Uptown Cafe is that kind of place where you don’t need KCCI to tell you how much snow we’re supposed to get, or how much rain just fell.

Inside, where they like their coffee black, you don’t need the local newspaper to tell you who got pulled over for speeding.

They know who’s at home with a bum knee and who’s not at home at all.

But the one thing the regulars didn’t see coming was the recent sale of the Uptown Cafe itself by Wayne and Beth Hougham to Wayne’s brother, Ora Stevens, and his partner, Nhan Nguyen.

“A lot of people are surprised they sold,” Stevens said last week.

A Grand Junction native and restaurant industry veteran who returned home to Greene County in 2013 from California with Nguyen to open Homestead Coffee & Bakery on the Square, Stevens has been spending most of his time since the Jan. 1 sale out front answering the questions of regulars.

“I’m just reassuring people that the menu is staying the same,” Stevens, 48, said, “and that the people are staying the same.”
“Don’t panic,” he joked. “Everything’s good to go.”

The Uptown is that kind of place.
“People come in here multiple times a day,” Stevens explained. “They’re vested into it being their own little restaurant. They don’t want to see changes.”

That’s the very reason Nguyen and Stevens bought the Uptown.

“This restaurant is established,” Stevens said. “It’s a mainstay in Jefferson.”

“I’m just going to maintain what we’ve got,” he added.

In other words, Homestead’s lattes will be contained to Homestead.

“This is not your latte crowd,” Stevens said. “Over here, it’s just regular, black coffee.”

In fact, if he’s heard anything repeatedly since taking over the cafe, it’s this: “Don’t mess with the coffee.”

The Uptown crowd savors its Farmer Brothers-brand coffee.

Stevens is happy to oblige if it means he gets a restaurant of his very own.

“It just kind of happened,” he said of the recent sale, explaining that the Houghams were ready to retire.

A 1986 graduate of East Greene High School, Stevens always wanted to own a restaurant. His partner, Nguyen, always wanted his own coffeeshop.

“He has his coffeeshop and I finally have my restaurant,” Stevens said.

When Homestead opened in July 2013 at the corner of Lincoln Way and Chestnut Street, the goal was to eventually open a higher-class restaurant in the back of the building.

That’s still the plan, Stevens said, with the Uptown Cafe now providing them with a reliable stream of income to make it happen.

When anyone outside of Iowa thinks of the Iowa caucuses, it’s safe to say they automatically picture a place like the Uptown, which the Houghams owned for close to 20 years. It’s a gathering place for real Iowans to eat real food and have real conversations over semi-real coffee.

“They want that home-cooked meal, and a place they can get it everyday,” Stevens said.

Every four years, a candidate or two seemingly drops in to shake hands.

This past September, the Uptown’s pies were named the best on the 89-mile-long Raccoon River Valley Trail after months of voting.

In his first month as owner, Stevens has been working his way through the Uptown’s entire menu.

“I was just saying these pants were loose when I started,” he joked.

If change comes to the Uptown at all, it will be slow and methodical.

“It is what it is,” Elaine McDowell, the longest-tenured of the Uptown’s 13 employees, said of the change in ownership as she ladled gravy onto a plate. “So far so good.”

Valentine’s Day will see the Uptown open on a Sunday night for possibly the first time in existence.

Stevens would like to add regular Saturday night hours in March, followed by Thursday nights if all goes well.

Stevens, who spent his last six years in San Jose, Calif., as an area manager of eight Chipotle restaurants, and Nguyen, a Californian who last served as an assistant manager at a Starbucks, knew they would have better luck opening their own business in Stevens’ native Greene County than on the coast.

“I’m from here. I grew up here,” Stevens said. “It’s more of a supportive community. Out there, you’re just another business going in.”

But aside from helping introduce the concept of fancy coffee drinks to small-town Iowa, Stevens and Nguyen are also expanding horizons just by being themselves as an openly gay couple.

In another era, they probably would have been all the talk over breakfast at, well, the Uptown Cafe.

“We are who we are, and that’s how it’s going to be,” Stevens said. “If you just strengthen up your back, you can be who you are.

“The world has changed.”

But for the love of God, don’t mess with the coffee.

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