A cafe dream

Natalie Crino shows off some of the delicacies available at the Compass Rose Café.

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It’s no wonder the Crino family’s café is named after a compass. In the past year, they’ve felt the Earth’s invisible forces bringing them to Brookings.

“Our whole family just felt like a magnet was pulling us here,” recalled Natalie Crino.

A year ago, the family was living in Utah. Natalie and her husband Peter were working corporate IT jobs, and the family would spend their vacations on the Oregon Coast.

Now, the new owners of the Compass Rose Café in Brookings live where they used to vacation and make a living with Italian doughnuts, not computer servers.

“There’s some bumps in the road, but we’re on the right track here,” Natalie Crino said.

She said the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic gave them the chance to move out west and change jobs — but the idea to do so didn’t start there.

Both Natalie and Peter had worked in the restaurant industry before they became systems engineers for corporate firms, and baking was a hobby of Natalie’s (cookies were her specialty). For at least 15 years, the pair dreamed about owning a restaurant or café in retirement.

And over the past few years, their increasing vacations to the coast became daydream fodder, too.

Natalie had grown up in northern California, near the redwoods. Peter had grown up in Rhode Island, near the ocean.

Thinking of moving, they researched which cities on the Oregon Coast had the most favorable weather, and they found Brookings, conveniently between the ocean and the redwoods.

“All of this just said this is where we belong,” Natalie remembered.

So, the family made a plan. When the time was right, they’d sell their house in Utah, buy one in Brookings, pack up the four kids and the dog and set out for their new home. They’d be able to keep their jobs, working remotely, too.

“We would wake up six months ago and ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t we in Brookings yet?’” Natalie said.

But when they were four days away from closing on the sale of their home, the pandemic took its toll on the family the same way it has for many: Peter was laid off.

The Crinos were left wondering: Do we move anyway?

Soon, they got an answer, when a café – their retirement dream – went on the market for sale in Brookings – their planned new home.

It was, of course, named after a compass, a symbol of finding your own way.

“That, too, seemed like a sign,” Natalie said.

So, they took the leap. The Crinos moved to Brookings in October, spending a few weeks working in the café alongside its former owner before finalizing the purchase exactly a month after they moved. Now, most of their belongings remain in storage as the family moves between vacation rentals and waits to find the right house.

When they arrived, they found the café was just as they’d hoped. Decorated with warm wood tones and pieces from local artists, the place was designed just how Natalie would’ve done it, she said.

What’s more, the new owners found a supportive community with a sweet tooth.

“There’s a need and a want for something different right now,” Natalie said.

They brought some fresh ideas to the café. Chief among them is the bombalone (or bombaloni, if there’s more than one), an airy doughnut filled with flavorful custard, topped with icing and inspired by the family’s Italian heritage.

Those have gone over well in town.

“We’re so grateful we’ve got support,” Natalie said.

Changing regulations enacted in response to the pandemic have been a challenge for every business, but Compass Rose has been able to weather the storm a little better than others. The grab-and-go nature means to-go food is a breeze. The café’s been to-go only since the start of the pandemic, with the tables inside rearranged to encourage social distancing while in line.

Some customers express disappointment they can’t sit inside and eat, even while state regulations would allow it at reduced capacity. But Natalie said she encourages her customers to make the best of it, pointing them to her favorite places to sit, eat and take in the area’s natural beauty.

“Don’t let to-go only dissuade you,” she said.

Her business has another advantage, too, in that it’s almost entirely run by the family. Peter’s in the café when he’s not working his new IT job for the Brookings-Harbor School District; Chloe, 17, takes on barista duties; Liam, 15, washes dishes; and Ava, 12, helps bake.

Vivian, 9, works at the front counter, and has discovered customers usually tip more when she politely chats with them.

Still, the days aren’t without challenges. Thursdays and Fridays are slow, but Sundays and Mondays, when roadtrippers are grabbing a bite on their way out of town, are busy. The busiest of days can leave the family wondering why they decided to take this leap at all.

But a walk on the beach is a helpful reminder they belong here.

“2020 really became the year people asked themselves, ‘Am I going to live for me?’” Natalie said.

The Compass Rose Cafe is located at 625 Chetco Ave #210.

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