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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010 04:17 pm

Café Moxo has moxie


Pastry chef Kayli Loafman.

I write at home most of the time. It has advantages, some particular to food writing, such as being able to test recipes. It’s also peaceful and quiet, typing away on my laptop at the kitchen table; the only sounds are chattering squirrels and singing birds in the background.

There are times, though, when I must write elsewhere: At my children’s apartments in New York, Boston and Chicago, or nearby coffee shops when I’m visiting. Or, when I’m traveling, in hotel rooms – and more coffee shops.

Sometimes even in Springfield I can’t write at home. The buzz-saws of the tree-trimming crews working up and down our road have driven me away, as did the drilling and hammering of workers replacing our kitchen door last week. Much as I love my family – maybe even because I love my family – when they’re home for holidays, it can be impossible to concentrate. And every so often I just get stuck and need a change of venue.

When that happens, I usually head for Café Moxo.

Why Moxo? Well, the ambiance is relaxed and congenial, the staff is friendly and, except during the very busiest times, the side room is quiet enough to focus on my task at hand. It’s simply a comfortable place to hang out.

Oh, and did I mention that the food is excellent? Everything except the breads, which come from St. Louis’ Fazio Bakery, is made on the premises. From scratch.

“We don’t use any mixes,” says owner Mark Forinash. “No margarine, only butter and cream. About the only artificial ingredient around here is in the Sweet-N-Low packets for people to put in tea and coffee.”

A St. Louis native, Forinash trained as a baker at that city’s highly (nationally) regarded Companion Bakery. By the time his wife, Shawna, who is originally from Springfield, took a job at SIU School of Medicine, he had spent 11 years as a manager at Companion. So it was a natural next step to open his own bakery café here.

 Forinash opened Café Moxo in June 2007. It was a tough beginning. Three weeks to the day after opening, Forinash collapsed. Doctors discovered that he had a punctured, infected esophagus, the result of a chicken piece that they speculate contained a bone fragment. It took extensive cardio-thoracic surgery and months of recovery before Forinash could return to his fledgling café that December. Fortunately, his mother was able to move here from St. Louis to keep things going until Forinash got back on his feet.

He might not be a native, but it would be hard to find a local with a deeper love for and commitment to downtown Springfield than Forinash. It took him two and a half years to find just the right location for Moxo. “I looked at the west side,” he says. “But I really thought downtown culture needed to stay downtown. Downtown is the heartbeat of Springfield.”

To Forinash, downtown is more than just the square. “Several banks said that if I wasn’t on the square, I wouldn’t last a year,” he says. “but I wanted to be where parking is easy and plentiful, and I liked the idea of a side street without fast-moving traffic.”

Forinash has equally strong ideas about his operation and staff. The relaxed atmosphere doesn’t come at the expense of efficiency: “It’s my goal that from the time you hit the line, it should only take five minutes until you order,” says Forinash. He’s especially proud that he’s only had to replace one person in two years. “Everybody you see working in the [open] kitchen helps with everything,” he says. “Busing tables, sweeping floors, including helping with some renovations last March – everything. Everybody does whatever is needed to make customers happy and satisfied.” Tips are shared based on hours worked.

Consequently the crew feels a strong sense of ownership and takes personal pride in Moxo. Take James Rucker, who began working there before it opened: “Hey, what’d you think of that chicken noodle soup?” he asked me last winter. “I made those noodles myself.” Last week I ran into Rucker down the street from Moxo. “Sometimes I just have to get outside for a few minutes and clear my head.  ’Cause when you love your job like I do, there’s so many things to think about, ’cause you want everything to be just right.”

Head baker Lisa Kasa.

It’s that kind of care that sets Moxo’s food above average. There are a number of tasty sandwich and salad possibilities; dressings and condiments such as chipotle mayonnaise are made in-house. There’s a rotating list of house-made soups, from that classic chicken and noodle to the more unusual Fall-over (sausage, sweet potato and pear) and Thanksgiving-in-a-bowl, which is exactly like it sounds. Breakfast items include homemade granola and, my favorite, a baked egg dish that’s sort of a breadless strata, topped with either roasted potato, bacon and cheddar, or ham and Swiss.

Then there are the baked goods, which have been expanding recently due to those renovations. Head baker Lisa Kasa is in charge of scones, muffins, cookies, rolls, etc. The gorgeously decorative iced cookies come in all shapes, sizes, and colors; and utilize over 250 different cookie cutters.

Even some bakeries whose primary business is special occasion cakes use mixes; not Moxo’s pastry chef, Kayli Loafman. Even the fondant is made in house. Fondant is sugar “dough” that’s rolled and formed to make fantastically decorated cake creations that are as much (or more) art as food: it’s edible Mr. Sculpey. But most commercial fondants have no flavor, only sweetness. Moxo’s fondant, made with butter and marshmallows, is tasty as well as decorative. Loafman focuses on smaller “cool, unique” cakes rather than mega-wedding creations, everything and anything from VW bus cakes to characters such as the Frankenstein head and spider webbed cakes currently on display. Custom designed cakes and cookies can be ordered.

Last, but not least, are cupcakes: more than 25 varieties and more as creations such as Barq’s root beer-flavored buttercream or apple juice-infused buttercream topped with graham cracker crumbs and Ghirardelli caramel are added to the roster.

Obviously, Café Moxo isn’t just my writing home-away-from-home. It’s a worthy breakfast and lunch destination anytime. During the season, Moxo is the unofficial center of the Old State Capitol Farmers Market, a genuine bustling marketplace café.

“I wanted to grow a long list of repeat customers,” says Forinash. Clearly, he’s succeeded, despite what the bankers told him. “There’s a huge number of people in here on a daily basis,” he says. “There’s nothing better in my life than coming in here and seeing people standing in line for breakfast and lunch. I’ve seen kids be born and raised in the 3 1/2 years since Café Moxo opened – seeing families get together here, that’s the best. That’s what keeps me going.”

 And just where did the name Moxo come from? “It’s a combination of my two dogs’ names, Moxyn and Rambo,” Forinash tells me. Café Moxo’s website offers additional answers to the question “What is a Moxo?”:

  • It’s a passion for fresh baked foods.
  • It’s a commitment to our community where we participate in supporting downtown businesses and working with charitable organizations.
  • It’s a verb. To do the best job in a complete, focused, and enjoyable manner, as in “Moxo-mize your day.”
  • It’s an adjective. It gives meaning to a commitment for quality and friendliness.

At some restaurants, that might be a perfunctory “mission statement,” little more than hot air. But at Café Moxo, Forinash and his crew really do mean it. And it shows.

Café Moxo is at 411 E. Adams, 217-788-8084. www.cafemoxo.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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