Familiar faces at D’Latte; Upholding tradition with coffee and conversation each morning

To locals who patronize or pass by D’Latte Cafe in Greenport Village each morning, the familiar faces often seated out front are practically part of the coffee shop’s decor.

At 8:15 Saturday morning, three members of the rotating cast of characters who meet at or are invited to D’Latte — Jim Kelley, Tom Owens and Steve Weiss — sat around shooting the breeze and greeting many familiar passersby, both two- and four-legged.

“You have to be a type-A personality and be willing to sit down here — and some of us take some abuse,” Mr. Weiss, 84, joked of how people join his crew. “You got to be pretty thick-skinned to do it.”

Just because these men are “characters” is not to say they lack character. Their friend Ken McDonald, a former airline pilot who died May 26 at age 87, was not there to defend himself from their playful snipes and jabs about his occasionally shoddy workmanship at his own or friends’ homes and boats, or his over-the-top Chevrolet convertible, painted yellow and purple and adorned with red flames. However, they routinely regaled one another — and anyone else within earshot — with tales of McDonald’s stringent, often humorous, dedication to rules, and his generosity, especially towards the group. 

After a few minutes, Chris Dowling, the bespectacled 53-year-old owner of One Love Beach surf shop across the street, joined the gang for coffee. Despite the generation gap, he’s gelled well with this crowd in recent years, particularly with Mr. McDonald. Mr. Dowling’s favorite story to share about his departed friend chronicles his efforts to repair a 60-year-old, yellow boat known as “Speed Banana.”

“He finally got it in the water and he said anybody who wants to use it can use it,” Mr. Dowling recalled. “One day I took it out with my wife and my son and I sent Ken a picture of my son driving the boat. Ken, a couple days later, comes back with a picture framed, the top half is the picture I sent him, the bottom half was a picture of him selling [a similar boat] when he was a kid.” Mr. McDonald later gave the Speed Banana to Mr. Dowling’s son for his 10th birthday. 

“I think it actually kept him going,” Jane McDonald said of the time her father spent at D’Latte. “He was a very social person, and he had a lot of stories … It gave him time just for friends.”

Lifelong friendships have blossomed through groups like the close-knit D’Latte crew. They represent e a fading population of retirement-aged friends, plus an occasional more baby-faced companion, who meet most mornings, if not every day, at the same breakfast or coffee spot. Typically single digits strong, these companions provide a sense of community and stability not only for those in their ranks, but also for their broader communities. Unfortunately, many deli owners and employees now speak of these friendly faces in the past tense.

“They were a couple of old farmers and just longtime residents, and they would come in every morning before the lights were on, have coffee, talk about current events … and they were off for the rest of their day,” said Melissa Carragher, who has worked at Meetinghouse Deli in Aquebogue since 1989. “Within the past two years, we lost quite a few.”

Like clockwork, the Meetinghouse early birds would arrive before Ms. Carragher or her sister, Charlene Evers, who owns the deli. After one of the sisters unlocked and went inside to prepare for the breakfast rush, the gentlemen would hang around and drink coffee. Ms. Evers remembers them as her “bodyguards.”

“I felt very safe with them here,” she said. “I’m here by myself in the morning and then keep the doors locked until [another employee] comes in, and when they came in, I felt safe to no end. I don’t care how old they were … a couple of them probably would have taken a bullet for me. They were a very, very, very good group of guys.”

Perhaps no group has made a more lasting impression on their chosen establishment than the gentlemen who meet at D’Latte made on its original owner Frank Purita, who died in 2019. However, the group’s story does not begin at a coffeehouse. Nearly 20 years ago, Bob Feger, a retired teacher who was named The Suffolk Times’ 2009 Educator of the Year, and Mr. Weiss embarked on a fishing trip shortly after they first met. The pair could not manage to catch a single fish, but the trip was still a success. They enjoyed each other’s company, so Mr. Weiss said he proposed they drop the rods and meet on his front porch for coffee going forward. Within the year, the pair moved their coffee and conversation to D’Latte, where they could meet and invite more folks to join them.

Mr. Owens said Mr. McDonald brought him into the fold, joking that he could sit down and chat provided he was not a Republican. Mr. Weiss approached Mr. Kelley at his newly purchased home and invited him down. Mr. Kelley’s lavish home became a frequent target of his friend’s ribbing.

“I was really new in town … Kenny came out and gave my dog a treat and we’re talking,” Mr. Kelley, 71, recalled. “And then Kenny stands up and goes to give him a second one. I said to Kenny, ‘I only want him to have one.’ Just like that, he says, ‘Well look, I figured you’ve spent so much money on that house of yours that you can’t afford dog treats anymore.’ My wife was mortified and I’m laughing … He was really quick with the comebacks like that, very funny.”

After the D’Latte morning men made themselves a cornerstone of Mr. Purita’s establishment for nearly a decade, the D’Latte owner began hosting annual dinners for them. One year, he gifted the group’s members red fleece jackets with their names sewn onto the right side and the D’Latte logo printed on the left.

“It was a very nice gesture on Frank’s part.” Mr. Owens, 63, said. “Even just to have the dinners.”

While Mr. Purita is no longer around to host these affairs, the red-jacketed gang have decided to meet annually at Maroni Southold. This second year served as a wake of sorts to remember Mr. McDonald. While all the men in the group have acquired a lifetime’s worth of tales, they tout Mr. McDonald as their paramount storyteller. 

Like the men sitting outside the coffee shop each morning, D’Latte keeps Mr. McDonald’s memory alive. When customers walk in, they will spot a memorial of dog treats the shop now leaves by the front door for any and all pups.

“He was the dog whisperer,” recalled Mr. Owens. “He had treats in his pockets for every dog that would come up to him.”

This was Mr. McDonald’s reputation that spread beyond the D’Latte storefront. In fact, his daughter said, people around the Greenport community would often gift Mr. McDonald dog treats as a “thank you” for anything he did to help, from the occasional odd job he performed around their house, to a ride he gave a friend’s mother to a medical appointment.

“People say somebody will give you the shirt off his back; Kenny was actually one of those kind of guys,” Mr. Weiss said. “I’m only three years younger than him, and he was outside shoveling my snow.”

Considering that groups of retirement-age friends like those seated in front of D’Latte each morning are becoming increasingly rare, one wonders if younger generations will continue such a tradition and embed themselves in a corner not only at their breakfast spot, but in their larger communities.

Since Ammirati’s of Love Lane opened eight years ago, a group of younger, middle-aged men primarily in the construction and automotive fields has met for coffee and conversation before they head to their jobs each morning. This conservative-leaning group talks politics, the weather, work and — like the D’Latte crew — they poke fun at one another and greet every familiar face they spot as if owner Greg Ammirati hired them as the establishment’s hosts.

Although he recently retired from agriculture, Albie Ridian, the group’s oldest member at 64, said he still comes to Ammirati’s each morning to meet his friends.

“I’m an early riser; I still get up at the same time,” Mr. Ridian said. “So I still come here and talk crap with the guys.”

Mr. Ammirati has gotten to know the group well over the years, and often yells over his hissing grill to join in the conversation, or just break their chops.

“They come in every day, you get to know them,” he said. Teasing them, he added “I wish I could get them to order more; they’re cheap.”

The D’Latte crew seems hopeful that younger generations will defend the cornerstone of small-town community life they embody. Jerry Cibulski, a 58-year-old realtor, joined them for a few minutes Saturday morning. He said he envisions himself keeping the group active once he retires.

“It’s a sense of community,” he said. “So everybody’s interconnecting because we all have different personalities and paths, and this becomes the part where everybody crosses paths, catches up and then continues back again.”

The D’Latte gents not only have younger guys like Mr. Dowling and Mr. Cibulski sipping coffee with them in the mornings, they also welcome newcomers to the community — both men and women as young as their 40s — down to Mr. Weiss’ slip at the marina for evening hangouts.

“They’re going to be the new group … they’re just getting settled,” Mr. Weiss said.“They don’t do coffee in the morning because they work. But we have an offshoot of ‘coffee in the morning’ called ‘rum at night.’ ”