It was 5 a.m. on a dark March morning in the Heights, but the lights were bright at STARs Café.
Owner Pepe Martinez was in the kitchen setting up for the opening rush. After making himself a cup of green tea, he slipped on a pair of food-grade gloves and began the morning baking.
First, a dozen pecan raisin scones had to be proofed in the oven. While they were rising, Pepe spooned batter into paper-lined muffin pans. When the scones were properly puffed, he added the muffins to the oven and turned up the heat. Off-season, he’ll bake — all at once — a tray of scones, several croissants and a couple of dozen muffins, two or three each of flavors including blueberry, lemon poppy, orange blossom and pistachio. But on summer days, the oven runs late into the morning, perfuming the Heights with sweet smells.
With the baking underway, Pepe headed to the basement to brew a batch of coffee. At STARs, customers help themselves to a variety of blends from carafes on a sideboard. Counter staff prepare espresso-based drinks and other hot beverages, take orders for the kitchen and serve up the baked goods.
Rising from dishwasher to roast master and owner at the Hampton Coffee Company, Pepe knows coffee. At STARs, he insists on “fair trade” organic beans — those meeting strict environmental and fair labor standards — that are blended and roasted to his specifications by an up-Island company.
“It’s better the way I roast it,” he said. “There’s a very thin line between smoked and burnt.”
In the basement he weighed ground coffee into filters — a quarter pound per carafe — for the two brewers. Once the first batch of five was ready, he started on backup carafes; while they brewed he was on the move between the basement and main floor to check the oven, accept deliveries or handle any one of a dozen other tasks. The steep staircase factors big in his daily routine, accounting for many of the 15,000 steps — around 7.5 miles — recorded on his Fitbit.
He’s done harder jobs, Pepe said, like picking strawberries in California after he arrived in the United States illegally from Mexico at age 26. “That’s the worst job ever,” he recalled. “When I see guys working the fields, I feel for them.”
UP FROM THE FIELDS
Not satisfied with or especially good at being a picker, one day Pepe spoke with the harried supervisor driving laborers to the fields. “He says to me ‘You’re not making money, everyone else is making money,’ and I say, ‘I know, but I can’t do what they do.’ And he says ‘what can you do?’ and I say ‘I can do your job.’”
The bold offer was accepted. The next day he was transporting the pickers, tallying their harvest and delivering strawberries for processing.
Now 51 and a legal resident of the U.S., Pepe started his East End restaurant career in the 1990s as a dishwasher at O’Mally’s in Southold where he badgered other kitchen staff about the particulars of their positions. The chef asked why.
“I told him, ‘Because I don’t want to be a dishwasher, I want your job.’ He laughed, but he let me do his job,” Pepe said. “Sometimes I worked as the side person and he let the side person cook, while he did the dishes, so that we could learn.”
Later, as a dishwasher at Hampton Coffee Company in Water Mill, he watched the coffee roasting process carefully. When a manager left, Pepe announced himself ready to take his place.
A native a Tampico, Mexico on the gulf coast, and one of six children, Pepe said he always has been a quick learner, but was trouble at school.
“No school wanted me. I had to go far to find a school that would take me,” he remembered. “I had to walk two and half miles and then spend another half hour on a bus.”
Pepe discovered STARs while delivering coffee to the cafe’s founder, Cheryl Hannabury, who died in 2002, and is the inspiration for the Island’s Gift of Life Foundation. He bought the business in 2005 with his wife, Lydia, and, following years of commuting at 4 a.m. from Southampton, they moved to Shelter Island in 2008. Their children, Emma and Sebastian, attend the Shelter Island School. Pepe also has two daughters, Elizabeth and Rebecca, who live in Hampton Bays.
STARs was already popular, and Pepe was grateful that Hannabury’s parents let him keep the name. The business, with its Grand Avenue sidewalk seating, was located in the basement of the building it shares with Reich-Eklund Construction and the Daniel Gale real estate office. Pepe moved the cafe to the first floor in 2006, expanded the menu adding Mexican-influenced items, and opened a seasonal juice bar and ice cream parlor in the space downstairs.
At 6 a.m., with the sky beginning to brighten, Pepe removed the baked goods from the oven, just as Mike Bebon, of South Ferry Hills, arrived looking for a cup of decaf en route to the ferry and Brookhaven National Laboratory where he is operations deputy. Pepe stepped out front to say hello. Bebon said the welcome he received from Pepe and the cafe’s self-appointed greeter, Bob DeStefano, who stops in most mornings, made him and his wife, recent transfers to the Island, feel at home.
“He really broke the ice for us” Bebon added.
A few minutes later a caller ordered a breakfast burrito. Pepe headed back to the tiny kitchen. Over a triple sink, ranks of skillets and saucepans hung beneath open shelves stacked with dozens of mixing bowls, whisks, spoons, spatulas and tongs. Nearby, refrigerators held ingredients prepped for the day. Pepe cracked two eggs and as they sizzled on the griddle deftly broke the yolks. He laid a couple of slices of bacon beside them to crisp and over the flame of one of the four gas burners heated a tortilla before transferring it to a cutting board. He topped the eggs with the bacon, slipped them onto the tortilla, which he folded, rolled and wrapped in foil.
While he worked, the front door opened again. He called a greeting out the pass-through window. “I don’t have to worry about him,” he said as a regular helped himself at the espresso machine. “He makes his own.”