DRACUT — For most Merrimack Valley residents, the number 978 is the local area code, but for Dara Svay, it’s about the eatery he opened in early March, the 978 Cafe.
Located in the Walbrook Plaza at the intersection of Hampson and Pleasant streets, the cafe accomplishes Svay’s high school dream.
He’s dreaming bigger now, however, and envisions more such coffee houses throughout the region. Svay believes in community and the 978 area code represents that.
Svay emigrated from Cambodia when he was 12. His parents were already here. They came ahead of their children to become settled in Massachusetts. He grew up in Lowell and went to St. Patrick’s School, where he began to learn English.
He wanted to learn English more quickly so he took advantage of the Pollard Memorial Library’s proximity, spending hours there reading. Then he would take DVDs home to perfect his English skills.
At Lowell Catholic High School, he helped pay the tuition by painting school walls.
His friend Tyler Dumont says, “He has always been the hardest worker of any friend I have.”
Svay also did stand up comedy to improve his English skills. According to Dumont, “He’s a really funny guy.”
Sitting at one of the custom tables in his cafe — Poirier Woodworks in Lowell crafted the tables — Svay describes the moment in high school when he decided he wanted to open a cafe. He and some friends were talking about their dreams and he blurted out his ambition.
Svay studied human services at Middlesex Community College and then web design at UMass Lowell. He worked as a web designer, but never abandoned his goal.
He did not feel the time was right when he was in his early 20s, but at 26 he said, “This feels right. Let’s do it.”
Finding the space for his cafe and getting it ready to open was stressful. He still feels stressed now that it is open “but it’s good stress trying to get to know people.”
The space he found was once a retail business, but it was closed for some time. With the efforts of friends and family, he renovated it. Non-supporting columns came down, and walls were patched and painting.
In addition to family and friends, he credits Dracut officials for help in permitting. “The people were very helpful and so nice and genuine. The Board of Health agent Dave Oullette was especially helpful. He recommended things to do before I could open.”
His advice to younger entrepreneurs is simple, “Go after your vision.”
He’s proud of the coffee he serves, Café Solar from Honduras. It makes a very smooth cup of coffee.
He’s building the restaurant’s menu methodically, not trying to rush things. He does not serve lattes and cappuccinos, yet. His menu features artichoke toast, which selectmen teased him about when he came to them for his final permit, pig-in-a-blanket sandwiches, and doughnuts from Donut Dynasty on Broadway Street.
He also prepares several kinds of smoothies. Each is named after a local community. The biggest sellers are the Dracut (a blend of milk, yogurt, mango and honey) and the Lowell (a blend of milk, strawberry, honey, and peanut butter). His fiancé wanted a vegetable smoothie, so the Methuen is also on the menu.
The café is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.