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Cafe serves up coffee — and a bridge between UMBC and Arbutus community

OCA Mocha is the newest coffee shop/cafe in Arbutus, a place where patrons sit talking, working on their laptops or simply absorbing the quietly lit ambience while sipping drinks or munching on snacks. A small stage by the front window that looks out on East Drive awaits performances by musicians.

What makes OCA Mocha so different is its mission of connecting the community to the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the three years it took for an undergraduate class idea to blossom into a real business. A quick walk through OCA Mocha — now just over 3 months old — shows how it’s trying to help both UMBC and the surrounding area.

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In the back part of OCA Mocha is a meeting room that seats up to 36 people and is available to anyone from anywhere, plus a spot that UMBC’s Office of Institutional Advancement uses at times. So, OCA Mocha plays a few different roles, which was the idea when the dream for the place germinated in the UMBC class.

That class in the spring 2017 semester, taught by Gib Mason, focused on entrepreneurship (ENTR 340). It dealt with “Innovation, Creative Problem Solving, and the Socialpreneur.”

UMBC had been wanting to make Arbutus into more of a college town, and when students came up with the concept of starting a cafe/coffee shop that would link the school with the community, things began to take shape.

A large network of students, groups, advisers and others helped turn the concept into action, overcoming a number of delays and obstacles along the way. Finally, OCA Mocha opened on Nov. 4.

“From the very beginning, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do, and we had a real reason to be doing it,” said Michael Berardi, a co-founder with Deep Patel; both graduated from UMBC in 2019.

“The ‘why’ is really important ... specifically, I think it’s to create a place where people can come together, share their ideas, share their values, share their creativity and create a real sense of community and connect with the university in a way that’s never happened before.”

The OCA in the venture’s name stands for Opportunities for Community Alliances. Berardi and Patel said the cafe features hot and cold drinks (including specialty drinks), along with sandwiches, salads and freshly baked goods. They’ve had those music events and are looking to bring in stoop stories. The place also sports an art gallery which has displayed exhibits from Lansdowne High and UMBC students.

The building covers about 4,250 square feet. The front is the cafe/coffee shop, run by a staff of about 16 people, including five interns, and the back holds the community/UMBC area.

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Christopher Roa, who graduated from UMBC in 2019, also helped get OCA Mocha off the ground. He teaches music during the day and returns twice a month to perform funk and soul. Roa worked as an intern in the summer helping to design the sound system and enjoys seeing the fruits of his and others’ labor.

“It’s very fulfilling,” he said. “Musicians, we’re social and we thrive and having places to perform and having a loving audience, that’s really welcoming to what we’re putting down. That’s why we did this, to have a space in the community for everyone who lives nearby to come and check it out. It’s been very rewarding to be a part of this.”

UMBC officials are hoping that OCA Mocha strengthens the connection between the school and the town.

“I think OCA Mocha brings the college and the town together in a new way that enriches both communities,” said Lisa Akchin, associate vice president for engagement at UMBC and co-chair of the UMBC Neighbor Relations Group. “The challenge has been that they’re not immediately at the edge of campus, but this certainly helps. OCA Mocha has been embraced; it’s getting great reviews and very steady strong business from the communities and the campus.”

The group bringing the concept to life endured a bumpy ride in the early stages. Before opening the doors late last year, they suffered through problems such as funding, the weather and dealing with contractors.

Patel, who was a biology major, said the most important lesson they learned from that entrepreneurship class was dealing with ambiguity. “There’s a lot of questions when starting a business,” he said. “How do you do [everything]? Not getting stressed out is important and just kind of taking everything as it comes.”

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Some even took a second class that further shaped their proposal, which they had to present to UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski — and his president’s council — plus Arbutus Town Hall.

Finally, they were able to sign a lease on March 15, 2018. While the university leases the entire space, the cafe is a limited liability company, or LLC, and subleases the front part of the building.

Patel and Berardi said the cafe brings in about 500-600 customers per week. Bettina Tebo, president of the Greater Arbutus Business Association, said she can see how OCA Mocha already has helped the 5400 block of East Drive.

“That block is golden right now,” she said. “There is a buzz happening along East Drive. OCA Mocha was the kickoff because during all the construction ... you could see people were really excited. The business association has been behind it since day one.”

The successful start has translated into a lot of hard work for Patel and Berardi. They often come in at 5:30 a.m. and stay into the afternoon, but they want to see the place do well. Patel can even envision duplicating the model in other college towns.

In retrospect, the long delays they had to put up with don’t bother him.

“In the moment it is frustrating, but looking back at it, it’s almost a blessing because just knowing how busy we are right now, there’s no way as students we could have been able to do this,” said Patel, while sitting at a table on a quiet afternoon with just a few people in the place. Then, quickly, several came in and ordered drinks, sat down, and relaxed while conversing. A few others entered, grabbed a booth and started to do some work.

Rogan Devlin, a CCBC student, arrived around the same time, sat in a booth and started in on some classwork. He already is something of a regular at the cafe.

“I normally come here if I have a good amount of homework to do,” he said. “It’s where I can just be able to focus on school, essentially. They normally have music going, just a very nice place to be able to dive into homework and focus on what I need to get done.”

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