The sound of typing echoes through the room as steam from a latte drifts through the air and the smell of warm chicken soup fills the space.
The door chimes as Lehigh students, professors and local community members open the door and shuffle in and out of the local family-run cafe, Deja Brew.
Deja Brew, located on Fourth Street near Lehigh’s campus, has been a staple in South Bethlehem since 1995. Its tasty sandwiches and fascinating decor have made it a place that many students and residents enjoy going to for a quick bite, getting work done or having a chat with a friend over coffee.
Like many other small businesses, Deja Brew experienced difficulty throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the cafe is still dealing with repercussions today.
One day during the height of the pandemic, Deja Brew employee Barbara Karnafel said she called in to take the day off because she had no one to watch her children and couldn’t leave them at home.
In response, store owner Jeff Vaclavik said, “bring them with you.”
“It turned from one time to a couple of times, to everyday,” Karnafel said. “Once my third (child) Lucas was born, I ended up just bringing him to work in his cradle and letting him sleep all day near the desk.”
Vaclavik said this wasn’t the first time that children had been hanging around Deja Brew. His own son practically grew up in the cafe.
He said his now-17-year-old son, Brady Vaclavik, spent his earliest years in the cafe, interacting with customers—primarily Lehigh students and faculty—instead of going to preschool.
“Lehigh students talk to the kids like their peers and I think that’s very good because they’re learning conversation just by being here,” Karnafel said. “They’re doing book learning at a preschool. Here they are learning the real world.”
Vaclavik and Karafel said their children’s experiences growing up in the cafe helped shape them into the people they are today.
“There are a lot of professors who know Brady and saw him grow up,” Vaclavik said. “From my perspective, I think it made him a more outgoing person. He was always comfortable around adults, which kids his age at his school weren’t.”
Vaclavik said there was a time during the pandemic when his son was still learning from home and struggling with chemistry. He and his wife had befriended a Lehigh chemistry professor, who was a frequent customer at the cafe, and she offered to tutor their son for free.
Although it isn’t always easy trying to work with their children around, Vaclavik and Karnafel enjoy the fact that Lehigh students and professors know their children and ask about them when they come in.
“When my daughter Iris was around, she would just come in and talk with everybody,” Karnafel said. “There would be people that would come in later and ask for her when she was in school. People still ask about her. There was a group of six fraternity guys that would come in and she would sit with them every time.”
Vaclavik said the cafe has not received any negative responses from customers about their children being around other than a Yelp review from a customer who ridiculed the cafe for having children running around.
“I really wanted to respond and shame this person,” Vaclavik said. “(Barbara) could have not worked and just sat home all throughout the pandemic keeping the kids cooped up inside, but what good would that do?”
Besides being a fun bunch to talk to, Vaclavik and Karnafel said the children can even be helpful for the business. Vaclvaik said Karnafel’s four-year-old son, Nathan, has been a big help with recycling, as they said it is a huge passion of his.
Karnafel said the children can be a good distraction for customers if service is slightly slow and they are late to get someone’s order out.
Spencer Howard, ’21, a frequent customer, said he has met the children numerous times and always enjoys the experience.
“It was me and two other kids in ROTC eating lunch, and the kids came over because we were in uniform and starting asking army questions,” Howard said. “It was really funny and cute because we had to scramble to answer all the questions.”