When Jezabel Careaga left her home in Jujuy, Argentina at the age of 18, her eyes were far from set on the Philadelphia restaurant scene.
After finishing college in Spain with a degree in hotel management, she moved to the states. In 2010, Careaga found her calling in the small-scale dining business with the opening of her own eatery, Gavin’s Café.
In the four years since its inception, Gavin’s has grown from a modest coffee shop into a South American dining staple within the Fitler Square neighborhood. Located on the corner of South 26th and Pine streets, the humble café offers a myriad of authentic Argentine and European small dishes in addition to its renowned hand-made empanadas.
Cooking South American dishes with her family since the age of 4, Careaga said she tries to implement the close-knit environment of her home country into the everyday atmosphere at Gavin’s.
“It’s a place where you build community,” Careaga said. “We know most of our customers by a first name basis. If someone is a regular here, we know exactly what they order every single time; it’s a very familiar, friendly place.”
Reflective of the cafe’s familial approach to dining, several of the menu items are baked in-house by Careaga, her relatives and parents. Among these options is an apple cake inspired by Careaga’s grandmother, a mozzarella and avocado-based vegetable sandwich courtesy of her sister, a mint lemonade created by Careaga’s father and alfajores – Spanish cylindrical confections doused with honey and almonds – crafted by her mother.
Aside from family recipes, the cafe boasts a number of international delicacies rare to the city. Medialunas, Argentinean-style sweet croissants, sit on pastry dishes alongside meaty quiche-like cakes known as tartas. Spanish tapas are also readily available, in addition to a tuna salad inspired by a meal Careaga had while visiting southern France.
Gavin’s also prides itself on fresh ingredients and an eco-friendly approach to dining and waste management.
“Because I was raised in another country with a completely different point of view, I really care for the planet,” Careaga said. “It’s very important to be sustainable.”
True to its environmental goals, the eatery’s waste is all locally composted. Gavin’s also encourages customers to eat in-house to minimize the amount of trash produced.
Locally sourcing the majority of its culinary building blocks, coffee for Gavin’s is provided by La Colombe Coffee. Fresh bagels are brought in courtesy of South Street Philly Bagels and all bread is imported from the New York-based Hudson Bread.
Barista Graham Cooper, a 2014 Temple graduate, has taken notice of the welcoming attitude of patrons from the surrounding area.
“The neighborhood is just fantastic, everyone knows everyone,” Graham said. “It feels very neighborly and it’s kind of rare to get that, especially in the city.”
Margaret Olson, another member of the Gavin’s team, said she shares this sentiment.
“The neighborhood is very friendly,” Olson said. “There’s a lot of regulars who come in every day and people who come in with their kids.”
Now the product that Gavin’s is known for, Careaga’s empanadas were originally baked only as an occasional specialty item. After noticing her eatery’s popularity within the neighborhood, Careaga began crafting the Argentinean treats exclusively just a few months after Gavin’s grand opening.
Initially consisting of only two small tables, an oven, a slicer and a toaster, the space’s kitchen has evolved to support the empanada crafting process from scratch.
To spawn the signature empanadas, Careaga mends hand-rolled dough over fluctuating fillings depending on the order, and then pinches or twists the ends of the dough to add visual flair to the final product. The empanada variants include a beef-based filling with sautéed onions and raisins, as well as a smoked ham creation with mozzarella and tomato.
With the cafe’s upcoming five-year anniversary on June 15, Careaga hopes to open another food joint under her own name in the near future.
Careaga believes that changes will allow Gavin’s Café to continue flourishing further down the road.
“It’s a constant evolution of any human being or any business,” Careaga said. “If you want to grow, if you want to be different, you have to keep growing. You have to keep changing things around once in a while, otherwise it gets boring. I don’t do well with the boring things.”
Eamon Dreisbach can be reached at email@example.com.