Loveland coffee shop pays tribute to owners' roots

In charming downtown Loveland, Jimmy and Leah Hooper are owners of the Hometown Café, a new community-infused coffee shop that honors their commitment to family and their love for their first and forever hometown.

Jimmy and Leah Hooper both grew up (mostly) in Loveland, a northeastern suburb of Cincinnati. They were not quite high school sweethearts, but they were friends. Then they started dating in college.

While at the University of Cincinnati, Jimmy started working in the restaurant industry. Cooking was something that made sense to him. Food was a natural, intuitive medium for working with his hands in a really practical way. Upon graduating, he felt his two best career options were the military or the culinary arts. He chose the latter and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY.

Leah attended Xavier University and then, while Jimmy attended the CIA, she started her career teaching high school math. They dated long distance for two years while he was away. Then, in 2005, Jimmy graduated from the CIA, the Hoopers got married, and they moved to Chicago to start their new life together.

A fresh start in the big city

For his internship, Jimmy worked at the luxury Fairmont Hotel in Chicago trying his hand at every “back of the house” job in the place — line cook, banquet chef, room service, etc. When he returned to New York City to finish his culinary arts program, the Fairmont Hotel invited him to come back after graduation and offered him a job in the banquet department.

Leah says moving to Chicago was an easy choice for them.

“Neither of us wanted to live in New York City,” she explains, “We both have so much family in Cincinnati that, when we got married, we wanted to start our family someplace else, but stay close enough to home. Chicago was the perfect place.”

Rather than transferring her teaching certification to Illinois, Leah got a job working for the Princeton Review and worked toward her Masters degree in curriculum design while Jimmy pursued a degree in hospitality management and worked his way up to banquet chef at the hotel. At one point, he was running banquets for 700 people and had even served a salad to Barack Obama (before his presidency, but still under Secret Service surveillance).

Living in Chicago was fun, Leah says. They had a lot of great friends, did some traveling, and enjoyed the freedom of being young and married in a big city.

After a few years, they decided to start a family. In September of 2009, the Hooper’s daughter was born and their city lifestyle didn’t quite fit anymore. Jimmy was working long hours, six days a week. Leah was the only one of her friends with a child. She remembers feeling lonely and isolated, staying home with a baby while her girlfriends hung out and Jimmy worked.

She knew she would be returning to work after her maternity leave ended, but the childcare costs in Chicago seemed exorbitant. Their families now seemed even further away and she longed for the comforts of home. It didn’t take more than a few months for them to decide to leave Chicago. They had been there for four and half years.

Choosing family and finding a new life in an old place

“When we moved back to Cincinnati, we didn’t even look anywhere else,” Leah remembers. “We knew we wanted to be in Loveland.”

They craved the familiarity of their hometown and wanted their children to experience what they had as kids. She remembers Jimmy joking that when he, someday, hears his kids talk about “hanging out at the powder factory,” he wants to know what they’re talking about (speaking of the notorious, vacant Peters Cartridge Company compound, now slated for development).

In 2010, the Hoopers settled into a new season of life as a family, now living just a few miles away from both of their parents. Leah began working as a curriculum developer for a software company; Jimmy took a job as executive chef at a local country club. But they quickly found that Jimmy’s work schedule was taking a toll on their family and felt the income wasn’t worth the sacrifice.

He said goodbye to his job as executive chef and took a job in corporate dining, working a more moderate 9–5 weekday schedule.

“We had to make a lifestyle choice,” Jimmy explains. “We had to be okay with making less money and work within those parameters. As a career move, it wasn’t great. But it was better for me and better for our family.”

When their son was born in 2013, Jimmy moved to working even fewer hours, freeing up his schedule so he’d be more available for his two young children.

Then, in 2016, Leah’s brother and sister in-law made Jimmy an interesting offer. They were preparing to open a new family business in downtown Loveland — Fresh Press, a cold-press juice bar, nut-free restaurant, and coffee shop. He wanted Jimmy to be his operations manager.

A family business was the perfect next step for Jimmy. He could exercise his expertise in the restaurant industry and keep close to home. (As an added perk: the restaurant had a commercial kitchen for him to use for his blossoming catering business.)

Fresh Press opened in 2017. But, unfortunately, it was only open for about a year and a half.

The restaurant’s closure, though, presented a unique opportunity for the Hoopers. Jimmy and Leah weighed their options.

The building had already been beautifully renovated for the restaurant, it was close to home, it had a stream of customers, and it had that full commercial kitchen. Their kids would both be in full-time school soon so childcare was not as much of a concern. Her career was stable. They never intend to leave Loveland, so they weren’t afraid to make a commitment.

They decided that it was time for them to step out, take a chance, and start their own hometown business with Jimmy managing the café and Leah handling the marketing and business end.

Hometown Café: an ode to family and community

Fresh Press closed in 2018 and, in early 2019, Hometown Café opened in its place. (Though the Hoopers joke that the thousands of leftover Fresh Press coffee sleeves will still be around, confusing customers, for a long time.)

Tucked into a charming little historic home, Hometown Café is surprisingly clean and modern. And its location can’t be beat. The café is right on the popular Little Miami Scenic Trail, halfway between Nisbet Park and the bustling Loveland Avenue shops and restaurants. It is only a block from the riverfront. There is free public parking around the corner and, as the weather warms, customers will be drawn to its comfortable outdoor patio seating.

In addition to a new name and new branding, the Hoopers gave the café a new, scaled-back, business concept. They serve a full coffee menu, featuring Cincinnati favorite, Deeper Roots. There is not a full dining menu, but Jimmy prepares fresh-pressed juice, bakery items, and lite fare for those hoping to grab a bite to eat while sipping coffee or passing through on a bike ride.

The limited grab-and-go menu caters to Jimmy’s expertise with no-fuss items like charcuterie, dips and dressings, salads and appetizers. One of his favorite homemade items is his sweet potato chips, available by the bag.

But even with Jimmy — a professional chef — in the kitchen, the Hoopers’ concept for Hometown Café is less about their family and more an ode to Loveland.

In addition to their ready-to-eat items, there are market shelves stocked with locally made foods like pretzels, sauces, and salsas. They sell Deeper Roots Coffee by the bag. There is also locally farmed and butchered beef (and, soon, chickens) in the freezer, and local kombucha lining the fridge.

As word spreads, they hope to carry more items from more local vendors so the café becomes a one-stop shop for everyone’s favorite local goods. Jimmy also plans to make the kitchen available to rent during off-hours to other local cottage-industry artisans and private chefs who need a commercial kitchen for their small businesses.

For now, the café is open seven days a week but closes early — at 3 p.m. — both to free up the Hooper’s time for each other and to make the café available for private evening events. The Hoopers want to make their café available for community use. To that end, a room upstairs will soon be outfitted for small private meetings or public events like family story times. They plan to someday expand into things like curated dinner parties, pop-ups, special events, and more outside catering. (They are in line for a liquor license but it could take a while, they say.)

For the Hoopers, the Hometown Café is much more than a new job opportunity. It’s a (hopefully) long-term investment into their family and into their community.

“After growing up here, you feel like this is where your roots are,” explains Jimmy. “We like being a part of that. We always knew we’d come back home.”

Loveland is their “old stomping ground,” he says, and one day it will be their kids’, too. They want to see their family — and their hometown — grow up together.

This is the fifth story in an ongoing series about Cincinnati’s “boomerang” residents — people who grew up here, left, and then came back for various personal, professional, and sentimental reasons. If you or someone you know qualifies and would like to be featured in Soapbox, email[email protected].

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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