Kava House offers private party room, adds to menu

by Gigi Wood

SWISHER – Swisher’s lone restaurant is expanding after less than two years in business.

Kava House & Café, 122 Second St. SE, opened an extra room adjacent to the restaurant to accommodate more diners and offer private parties. The restaurant remained busy during tough economic times and traditionally slow winter months for the industry.

“We’re taking our growth very slowly, we’re very cautious about what we’ve done and been very thoughtful about the decisions that have been made,” said Karen Vondracek, part owner of the Kava House. “It got so that we had outdoor seating in the summer and that was good, but we needed more space during the winter.”

That doesn’t mean the restaurant is going gangbusters.

“Our expenses are high, especially in this economy, everything costs more,” she said. “But we make due with a core group of employees who are just out of this world.”

Friends and family make up the business’ employee base, including some volunteers.

“They’re not getting rich, but they can see it’s more than that,” Ms. Vondracek said. “It’s become a community meeting place.”

Kava House, with its antique decorations and homey atmosphere, has become a gathering spot for groups throughout the region. Swisher is 10 miles south of Cedar Rapids and 20 miles north of Iowa City off Interstate 380.

“It’s especially convenient for groups from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids; it’s a nice central location,” she said.

Baking starts at the Kava House at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for its 6:30 a.m. opening Tuesday through Saturday. The restaurant does not serve a full bacon-and-eggs breakfast but is known for its pastries, including kolaches and cinnamon rolls, muffins and scones, which are made fresh daily.

At lunch, Kava House serves soups, sandwiches, salads and other items. The dinner menu is similar, with a few additional rotating dishes, such as prime rib, beef stroganoff, and other items. A soup-and-sandwich combo was recently added to the menu and the cooks are testing out some new recipes.

“There are certain dishes that bring people in, the turkey that we do and the reuben that we do, I think attract people because it’s made differently,” she said.

The reuben is made with homemade sauerkraut and a unique blending of lean corned beef, cheese and other ingredients.

One of the draws to the Kava House is its unique flavors, stemming from the use of vendors not typically found in the Iowa City or Cedar Rapids areas, she said. The coffee, ice cream, meats, gifts and other items all come from niche suppliers that Ms. Vondracek and her friends painstakingly search for.

The business has a full coffee bar, serving a regular cup of coffee to all varieties of espresso drinks; the coffee comes from a roaster in Minnesota. The ice cream comes from an old-fashioned producer in Wisconsin. Many of the gifts and jewelry the business sells comes from local artisans. Native Iowa wines are also sold at the venue.

“We try to sell things that are not available anywhere else,” she said.

Kava House is in a 1914 former general store, where several different businesses have been during the past 96 years. Ms. Vondracek and her husband Craig own the business with her brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Julie Poplka. They revamped the entire building, including the second story, where there are apartments. The electrical, plumbing and other infrastructure were replaced and drywall reset.

“We saw the need in this area for something and at the time there weren’t any, well there aren’t any restaurants in Swisher. There are a couple in Shueyville that are bars that serve food. We just saw the need for this and the building was sitting pretty much empty,” she said.

They started the work in November 2007 and finished in November 2008. When they were finished, they received the Historic Preservation Award by Friends of Historic Preservation and the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission. They found most of the furniture and the restaurant’s counter at an auction for a former broom factory in Cedar Falls. They named the business Kava, which is Czech for coffee.

The new room seats 20 to 24 people and can be reserved for a fee. If the room is not reserved, anyone can use it.