An avid home baker, Rafae used to primarily bake sweets for her husband, an attorney in the cybersecurity industry. With his encouragement, she received her culinary training from The Art Institute of California - San Francisco, earning an award for her graduation portfolio. This training first led to a stint in pastry at Livermore's Wente Vineyards and then Rafae's first independent catering assignment, assembling a dessert table for a wedding.
"After that, there was no stopping," she said.
Thrilled by the positive feedback she received, Rafae started building up her catering business, Cocoa & Butter. She created towering wedding cakes graced with gold leaf and flowers and arranged dessert tables holding platters of bite-sized sweets.
However, the pandemic caused the cancellation of many of these catering gigs, and Rafae took a chance to reflect. While she enjoyed baking out of her home and occasionally renting out commercial kitchens, she knew that she wanted to create a space where customers could gather around her products and enjoy the calming environment of a French cafe. This criteria eventually led Rafae and Bhatti to Cocoa & Butter's current space.
"I knew I wanted to go with brass and glass, a very French look, the bistro look," Rafae said.
The menu showcases a wide variety of Rafae's baked goods, which are often based on classic French patisserie but incorporate small twists. The bakery offers a croissant shaped in the form of a Facebook "like" symbol, and there's opera cake, the layered sponge cake flavored with dark chocolate and coffee, formed in a mold rather than its signature rectangular shape. The expansive selection also includes confectioneries like chocolates and caramels packaged in bright pink boxes.
A personal touch also influences the bakery's cafe menu, which includes classic items like French onion soup and Caesar salad but also "The Zuckerberger," a tribute to the tech magnate's passion for grilling and smoking meats. (Rafae hopes he will come to try it soon.) The bakery also offers high tea, houses a private dining room and will continue to cater events and weddings.
"It's not just another bakery: We are trying to introduce this cozy, family-owned appeal," Bhatti said.
While the couple has enjoyed seeing their space come together, they are facing challenges prevalent in the restaurant industry and are operating without the support of an investment group. The dueling forces of rising food costs and employees seeking higher wages in a grueling industry have caused businesses like Cocoa & Butter to limit their hours and menus.
For Bhatti and Rafae, it's hard to guarantee the highest level of quality across all of their products without an extensive, well-trained staff, and they ask for understanding from customers. The couple see themselves as creating a community gathering space, so they are deeply affected by the feedback they receive from residents. They describe hearing welcomes from the community as being "heartwarming" but feel pained when the display cases sometimes hold only crumbs by the middle of the day, the kitchen lacking the bakers needed to restock them.
Joining a growing number of restaurants turning to crowdfunding, the couple has launched a Kickstarter, hoping that the community will support its neighborhood cafe and bakery.
"It's entirely family-owned. … It's our own personal investment. So that's why there's a lot riding on it," Bhatti said.
Cocoa & Butter, 383 University Ave. Palo Alto; Instagram: @cocoaandbutter. Check website for latest operating hours.
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