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Roust Deli, a “relaxed” cafe serving coffee and sandwiches, quietly opened its doors earlier this month in the space formerly occupied by Darwin’s Ltd. in Harvard Square.
Located at 148 Mt. Auburn St., the cafe served its first customers on Feb. 5 with just a few menu offerings, including coffee, latte, espresso, hot chocolate, and a few pastries. While the business model between Roust and Darwin’s is similar, Mike Spires — the manager of both Roust and the former Darwin’s location — said that he has been focused on creating a “bit more of a modern menu.”
“I think the food will be a little better,” Spires said.
In contrast to Darwin’s “busy” atmosphere, Spires also hopes to “make things more efficient” at Roust Deli.
“We want to make enough recipes to make more to-go options — things that people can come in and buy from a fridge and run away with immediately to keep things flowing a little faster,” Spires said.
Valentin Terteliu Hefco, the owner of Roust Deli and Tokava Coffee in Jamaica Plain, had not heard about the closing of Darwin’s prior to buying the location. He said he was looking for a place to open up a deli shop when he found the property listing online.
“It’s in line with my interest. So that’s it. I didn’t know any stories,” Hefco said.
Of the six staff members at Roust, two employees — including Spires — worked for Darwin’s Ltd. Spires said that Steven Darwin, the co-owner of Darwin’s Ltd., connected him to Hefco after it was announced that the longstanding chain would be shuttering its doors late last year.
A small group of former Darwin’s employees, Circus Co-op, had sought to open worker-owned cafe at a former Darwin’s location on Cambridge Street until the building was bought in early February. The group is now looking at the two remaining former Darwin’s locations and other locations in the area.
Spires said that starting this business from “right off the ground” has been challenging.
Outside the store, remnants of the recently-closed chain still remain, including the classic “Darwin’s Ltd.” sign with blue lettering — to which Spires said they have to work on getting permits to remove.
Roust is also waiting on the two-month transfer period for Darwin’s wine and malt store license. Spires said the cafe plans on having “an identical lineup of wines and beers.”
On a quiet Monday morning, customers at the cafe worked on their laptops and sipped on their coffees.
Compared to other cafes in the area, Paul Dingus, a master’s student at Harvard Kennedy School, said this cafe “feels more homey.”
“It’s a place where I don’t feel rushed, like in or out the door,” he said.
As a past customer of Darwin’s, Dingus said he was “thrilled when this place opened back up.”
Alicia D. Rolsma, a Cambridge resident, said the cafe feels “cozy” and “very locally embedded.”
“I had been to Darwin’s in the past, but I kind of like this vibe better,” she said as she relaxed with a book in one of the cafe’s cushioned chairs.
Valerie Peck, a Cambridge resident, said she liked Darwin’s but also enjoyed the “new atmosphere.” She said there is always ample seating for her to get work done at Roust, unlike at other “much smaller” coffee shops nearby.
“I love the lighting. Staff is very courteous, and it’s a good place to work for now, just to get out of the house,” Peck said.
On attracting former patrons of Darwin’s and new customers, Spires said he hopes to let Roust’s food speak for itself. The plan, Spires said, is “to make good food, tell them to come in, try it, and want to come back.”
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