Before West Cape May's beloved coffee shop and cafe, Higher Grounds, closed for good, Tom Carpenito was one of its many loyal customers.

"I loved the place," said Carpenito, a resident of New York who has a second home in West Cape May. "I loved the cozy atmosphere. I loved playing with Bear and Oddie, (Higher Grounds' unofficial four-legged, tail-wagging greeters.) I always said if this place became available, I'd want it."

That's exactly what happened.

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Higher Grounds, the quaint and artsy organic coffee shop and vegetarian/vegan cafe owned by 20-something, self-proclaimed hippie chick Katie Panamarenko, officially closed its doors at the end of last year after Hurricane Sandy caused a fire in its building, next to Key West Taco on West Perry Street.

When Carpenito drove by earlier this year and noticed the "For Rent" sign posted in its window, he jumped on the opportunity to take it over.

"I really never thought I'd be in the food business, but this place was just too good to pass up," he said.

Since taking over, he's renovated, restructured and renamed the business, which is now named Emilia's Garden after his late-grandmother, but he also has been cautious to maintain Higher Grounds charming and chill atmosphere.

"People loved that about the Higher Grounds - the zen feeling, Carpenito said. We wanted to keep that, but still freshen it up and add our own style."

Like Higher Grounds, Emilia's Garden is a coffee shop and cafe that offers WiFi and plenty of table space and comfy chairs both inside and outside to encourage people to come and lounge for a while.

The business officially opened over Memorial Day weekend and is now open from 7:30 a.m. to

9 p.m. seven days per week, serving gourmet to-go food and coffee options and hosting live music and impromptu craft sessions in its garden, the latter led by North Cape May artist Penelope Cake.

For $10, customers can pick a craft, such a bracelet out of soda tabs, and Cake will provide the materials and a hands-on art lesson. The crafts are great for children whose parents are relaxing at a nearby table in the garden as well as for adults.

"I've had mothers and daughters come do a craft together," she said.

The redesigned and spruced up garden is biggest and most exciting change from the former business, Carpenito said. It now has an array of seats and tables surrounded by flowers, fountains and birdhouses, a "beach" with sand and beach chairs, a stage for the live music and an art shed that houses local art for sale, called Suzy's Garden Gift Shop.

Suzy's Garden Gift Shop is run by Cake.

Emilia's Garden's interior is decorated to resemble a 1950s home with upholstered chairs, formica topped tables with chrome bases, old radios turned into tabletops and the like.

"I wanted it to feel like you're eating in your grandmother's house," Carpenito said, as he pointed to one his grandmother Emilia's blue upholstered chair in a corner.

Contact Elisa Lala:


Emilia's Garden

479 W. Perry Street, West Cape May


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