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Sarasota coffee shop doubles in size, adds yarn business

A family of German immigrants musters up a rare match, in opening a yarn store inside their Sarasota European-style cafe.


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  • | 5:00 a.m. July 8, 2024
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The Hashtag Cafe opened 18 months ago and recently expanded to add a yarn business.
The Hashtag Cafe opened 18 months ago and recently expanded to add a yarn business.
Photo by Emily Leinfuss
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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A tight-knit family in Sarasota via Germany (and Virginia) might have the solution for how to make a European-style coffee and pastry shop stand out. The answer: sell yarn, too.

The unusual combination starts with Hashtag Café, on Bee Ridge Road at Tuttle Avenue in Sarasota. In its 18 months of operation, it’s attracted a mix of patronage that includes local businesspeople, coffee lovers, remote workers and families. 

More recently the café’s owners expanded the space to double its original size in order to launch a new business, Hashtag Yarn Corner – thus creating what may be the first-ever hybrid coffee shop/yarn and knitting store in the Southeast. 

Hashtag’s owners — the husband, wife and son team of Elias, Bianca, and Mohi Bendraouia, respectively — moved to the U.S. in 2015 from Germany, settling in Virginia. They relocated to Sarasota In 2019. Like many immigrants the family wanted to develop a brighter future, and more importantly, a business future for Mohi post-high school. 

The launch of Hashtag Yarn Corner was primarily driven by the German-born Bianca (Elias originally hails from Morocco). She owned a knitting store in her hometown of Bad Mergentheim for five years, but hadn’t really knitted since moving to the U.S. “I was busy getting my photography business (Bianca Ben Family Photography) off the ground,” she says. Upon accompanying a friend to a local yarn store, she got back into knitting. 

Bianca began sourcing the hand-dyed, international yarns she preferred. But she couldn’t find any locally — marking the beginning of the new business by the activation of a wholesale account with her first yarn vendor in early 2024.

After a short while, displaying a few racks of yarn within the café wasn’t enough – for her and also to meet a growing demand from customers who had discovered the colorful, specialty fibers. 

The decision to expand Hashtag’s footprint was to meet that need and also practical. “We knew we needed a larger space for the café, and I wanted something bigger for the yarn and knitting,” said Bianca, who also plans to host knitting retreats and parties. Today Hashtag Yarn Corner hosts Sip’n Stitch get-togethers on Tuesdays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 3 p.m.

While Hashtag Yarn Corner developed organically, the bigger challenge was the initial launch of Hashtag Café. Critical to its success was going above and beyond to meet their vision for the place as a unique, European style, community-driven "Kaffeehaus.” 

Bianca Bendraouia says Hashtag Yarn Corner came about organically, to fill a need.
Photo by Emily Leinfuss

The family managed everything themselves, including research, construction and workflow planning — a process of several months. (The buildout cost just under $100,000.) Bianca took charge of menu selection by researching and sourcing equipment and products. Elias handled the interior construction, including building the counters and other features. He’s also the primary pastry baker.

They knew too, that in order to differentiate their fledgling, independent coffee and pastry shop, Hashtag's beverages needed to stand out in authenticity and quality. Key to this was selecting the beans and coffee machine, and then mastering its use to produce a perfect cup of coffee, as well as sourcing specialty loose leaf teas, says Bianca. For example, unlike chain enterprises, Hashtag’s chai latte is made from real leaf chai tea, sweetened to taste, rather than using pre-prepared flavored syrup. 

Their efforts panned out. Hashtag Café's coffee and tea have remained true to the original formulas, along with the owners’ recipes for smoothies and boba teas. The pastry menu, however, has evolved over time based on what worked. For example, early on Hashtag Café offered a selection of fruit tarts. “They were delicious but, at the end of the day, we were the ones eating them,” Bianca says.

Despite her non-traditional business background, Bianca thrives off her go-to-market ethos. “I make decisions quickly based on my intuition,” she says. Her strongest piece of advice is that, while brainstorming an idea is important, transforming a business vision into reality requires action. "You have to put yourself in motion." 

Don’t expect instant success either. Many people want to achieve something, but few are willing to invest in learning new skills, she adds. “Write down your goals and look at them every day.” 

Bianca notes her approach to business has evolved, too. When she first launched her German knitting store, she tended to think sales representatives knew better, leading to poor product choices. Now she stands behind her products, selling only what she intuitively knows will work. "If you don’t believe in your product or service, it won't succeed," she says.

Bianca's personal and business philosophies are rooted in service and community. She believes that for an independent place like Hashtag Café to thrive it needs to cater to its surrounding community. "I also want to serve my family and create a great life for them, and a safe environment for our children and now, our new grandchild.” Her approach reflects a belief in kindness and reciprocity. "What goes around comes around, and when you are nice to people, it comes back to you."

 

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