Life is sweet at Cafe Tere

Couple overcomes unexpected hurdles on the way to opening day

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By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

A quiet ribbon-cutting announced the mid-pandemic opening of Café Teré, 8420 Brookfield Ave. in Brookfield, but owners Teri and Charlie Mortel had to contend with far more than COVID-19 on the road to opening day.

"Our life is made up of snippets that led us here," said Teri, who has been married to Charlie for 26 years. "We kept a little floral table in front of the picture window in our house. Years ago, Charlie started calling the table 'Café Teré' after I served him a lunch he considered to be 'pound the table good.' The idea just grew from there."

Since graduating from The French Pastry School more than a decade ago Teri, who is a full-time CFO for a real estate developer, has been perfecting and adapting her recipes for assorted confections in anticipation of one day opening a bakery-café. 

The couple found the "sad building with loads of potential" on Brookfield Avenue in 2018. They embarked on a year-long renovation to bring their café vison to life. They refurbished the original tin ceiling, replaced the floors and installed board-and-batten wainscot to give the vintage space a bright and homey feel.

"This was always going to be Teri's endeavor, but I was planning to support her in any way possible," said Charlie.

And then the space sat dormant for more than a year.

Charlie had been battling chronic kidney disease for many years and figured he would use medication and "coast through" the rest of his life with compromised kidneys. In 2017, while vacationing with Teri in Bulgaria, he found himself exhausted in a whole new way. 

Upon returning he followed up with his nephrologist and received the unfortunate news his kidney function had drastically decreased. Following emergency surgery, Charlie embarked on a time-consuming dialysis treatment journey to keep him as healthy as possible.

Long travel times for treatments delayed Café Teré's opening.

Teri was willing to donate a kidney to Charlie. Despite their harmonious marriage, she proved to be a less than ideal donor for her ill husband. But a willing donor is a powerful thing. 

In time they became part of the kidney pair donation program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Ultimately, the program included the couple in a group of eight people —four pairs each with a recipient and willing donor. 

On March 12, 2020, just days before the COVID-19 shutdowns started, the two-day surgical procedure commenced, with Teri donating her kidney to an unknown recipient in the swap. The following day Charlie received a healthy kidney from another anonymous donor.

Facing extended recoveries, the couple further delayed their bakery opening.

The road was long, but both Charlie and Teri battled back from the surgeries. In July, the couple appeared via Zoom on the "Today Show" in an emotional segment introducing the donors and recipients to each other for the first time.

"Everyone is healthy and doing well," said Teri. "We even hosted some of the group right here in the café before we opened." 

Today, Café Teré is open for business and boasts artistic touches in the form of Teri's murals and Charlie's photography. Popular menu items include hand-rolled croissants, opera cake, pumpkin cheesecake and Russian honey cake, as well as everything bagel-seasoned focaccia, breakfast sandwiches and sweet and savory scones. 

Charlie is more hands-on in the business than he intended to be. He crafts all the bread served in the café, including naturally leavened sourdough and their house bread—an enriched bread akin to a brioche.

"People in the Brookfield community are so nice," said Teri. "We keep selling out of everything, so we feel like we are playing catch up a lot. But three months ago I couldn't have rolled out croissant dough, so that puts things in perspective."

They plan to gradually expand the menu and eventually introduce lunch service, but for now Café Teré is open Friday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

The 'Café Teré' table the Mortels had in their home now sits in their Brookfield shop. It offers a proper place for guests to pound the table when they taste a bite of Teri's Russian honey cake.

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