Saturday, December 9, 2023

Carolina Beach’s Malama Cafe opens in light and health amid the darkness of a pandemic

Kate Paredes and LeeAnn Tluchowski, owners of Malama Cafe at Carolina Beach, opened their restaurant Memorial Day weekend. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

CAROLINA BEACH — To take care of oneself, preserve the environment and protect others: The tenets of the Hawaiian word “malama” fit the name of a new cafe and coffee shop in Carolina Beach. Located on Cape Fear Boulevard, a block from the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, Malama focuses on serving healthy food and drinks, while also doing its part to lighten its environmental footprint, thanks to a rigorous composting program.

Owned and operated by two couples, Matt Piccinin and LeeAnn Tluchowski and Tom and Kate Paredes, Malama opened Memorial Day weekend, right as Pleasure Island began to open its beaches amid a pandemic. 

“We had no idea what to expect,” Tluchowski said. “We had been planning to open for a year, signed our lease in December or January, and then the pandemic hit.”

Instead of panicking, the couples took it all in stride. Since the cafe was under construction during a time when the world was hunkered down and self-isolating, they leaned into the advantages of it. 

“We were able to plug away and actually take it slower than normal,” Tluchowski said. “We opened Malama with all the new CDC restrictions in place, like less seating and using disposables, which actually works for us.”

Malama uses 100% recyclable disposables, doesn’t carry products in plastic bottles, and serves reusable glassware as needed. 

Tluchowski and her husband are seasoned restaurateurs who have built, expanded and franchised Shuckin’ Shack over the last 14 years. Their flagship restaurant on North Lake Park Boulevard is just around the corner from the new cafe. They’ve weathered many storms, including hurricanes and economic downturns, and have borne the brunt of working late nights and being married to the industry.

“I tell everyone you have to have a few screws loose to work in this industry,” Tluchowski quipped. “Some days we look at each other and say, ‘What are we doing?’ But there’s a certain euphoria that comes with the chaos of running a restaurant that I’m addicted to.” 

Malama serves Counter Culture coffee from Durham, NC, which is roasted daily and shipped overnight. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Convincing her business partner and lifelong best friend, Kate Paredes, to open Malama wasn’t too challenging. In fact, Paredes said she and her husband found the idea appealing. Both worked for NBC Sports for years when they lived in New York, and seven years ago moved from the hustle of the city to the sleepy beach town to be close to family as they started their own. 

“We had so many years of being home and raising our children, which was fantastic,” Paredes said, “but going out now and seeing [Malama’s] regulars at the Tiki Bar when we are having dinner—to be able to have that connection feels like I’m very much ingrained in our community.”

The owners see Malama as a bridge to taking care of oneself and others simultaneously—to break away and relax from the rigor of life, according to Tluchowski.

The cafe features an outdoor patio; inside, a wall of windows pours natural light into the space, organically brightening white subway tiles and natural wood. Plants hang overhead, as a bar aligns the windows for folks to enjoy a quick bite. A nook in the corner welcomes customers to sway in a rattan swing or take a seat on a cozy sofa. 

A cozy nook in Malama welcomes customers to sway in the rattan swing or cozy up on a comfy couch with a bite and sip. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Regulars sip on carefully crafted coffee drinks made from Counter Culture out of Durham. All the beans are roasted fresh and shipped overnight to Malama. The cafe also offers 221 BC and Panacea Brewing Company kombucha on tap, and the food menu expands into smoothies, bowls and sandwiches.

“We took a lot of inspiration from the toast craze, too,” Tluchowski said. 

Customers can choose from five creations, including avocado, egg, heirloom tomatoes, edamame and sesame seeds, or almond butter with banana, almonds and local honey. In the coming months, the menu will include quinoa bowls and salads.

“Both of our husbands overcame cancer over the last few years, so offering wholesome, healthy food is important to us,” Paredes said. 

“We make food with real ingredients, everything you can pronounce,” Tluchowski added. 

Malama Cafe owners embraced the toast craze and serve five varieties, including avocado, egg, edamame, heirloom tomatoes and sesame seeds. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Currently, Malama boasts seasonal items, like apple-cinnamon toast, a blackberry-goat cheese panini and a pumpkin-pie latte. All shift workers switch between pouring coffee to blending smoothies to washing dishes to grilling paninis. 

“That’s the cool thing about the menu,” Tluchowski said. “You don’t have to be a chef to make these things.”

Though they still have kinks to work out, Tluchowski and Paredes predict the onslaught of winter’s slower months will help them hone the cafe’s rhythm. St. Patrick’s Day is when the island kicks off with more activity, and a few months later, the Carolina Beach Boardwalk normally brings back concerts, fireworks, events and carnival rides—thus more people.

Should that happen, and Covid-19 numbers don’t spike, Malama will increase indoor capacity. When that time arrives, Tluchowski foresees hosting fun workshops to expand Malama’s community reach. 

“Kate is really great at coffee art,” she noted. “I think it would be cool to teach people how to design their foam.”

Currently, Malama Cafe’s hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and likely will expand to 4 p.m. in spring 2021.

All baristas are cross-trained at Malama to make drinks, create food stuff, serve customers and overall provide top-notch service. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Co-owner LeeAnn Tluchowski, center, prepares an avocado toast. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Outside dining is available in front of Malama Cafe in Carolina Beach, one block from the Boardwalk. Port City Daily / photo by Mark Darrough
Outside dining is available in front of Malama Cafe in Carolina Beach, one block from the Boardwalk. Port City Daily / photo by Mark Darrough
Malama is Hawaiian for “take care of oneself, preserve the environment and protect others.” (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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