When the former owner of La Vita Dolce in Southern Village retired, Annie Johnston bought the coffee shop to fulfill a long-held wish: to own a cafe.
La Vita Dolce has been in Chapel Hill for more than 15 years. Roughly two years ago, Johnston bought the coffee shop from the previous owner and started working on her new cafe. She switched all the coffee selections, made new types of gelato and changed the menu, all while keeping the name the same.
“I had grown up just a couple miles away from here and I had watched Southern Village be developed as a kid,” said Johnston. “So, when this went up for sale and I was looking to start a cafe I was like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect!’ I know this community – I think this place has a ton of potential.”
This is Johnston’s first cafe, so in order to gain practical experience in day-to-day operations, she worked as a barista for about nine months.
“I tasted 50 different types of beans, from top roasteries across the country, from regions all over the world to find the one that I thought was going to be the best for the most people,” said Johnston. “To make sure that [when] people come in, they feel like they’re getting a treat.”
Johnston and her team focus on encouraging customers to treat themselves and feel good while in the café, through typical café fare and an expanded menu that features a wide selection of options that stretch beyond coffee. The gelato is made in-house, and available in up to 18 flavors in the warmer months. The gelato is gluten-free, not including toppings, and the sorbet is vegan. The cafe also has fresh fruit smoothies without sugar that are gluten-and-dairy-free, as well as paninis, wraps, sandwiches and locally produced baked goods. According to Johnston, she wanted to make sure there was something on the menu “that made everyone’s eyes light up.”
La Vita Dolce also sells wine and beer and launched a summer event, Wine Down Wednesday, this year. According to Johnston, the crowd has been getting bigger every week. There are free gelato cones for children 10 and under, discounts and free samples, live music and opportunities to mingle with other Chapel Hill residents.
The remaining Wine Down Wednesdays of this summer are Sept.13, 20 and 27.
“Even if they come alone they meet someone new and they start talking to them,” said Johnston. “Or they meet their friends here, make it kind of a community event.”