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Jan 24, 2013 03:03PM

Home and away: Business owner brings warm worldview to Q-C coffee shop

Sarah J. Gardner, sjgardner@qconline.com
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Paul Colletti
Salma Arabi is owner of Dewey's Copper Cafe at the Moline Public Library. Ms. Arabi is originally from Syria but has been living in the Quad-Cities for the last 19 years.
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On a Wednesday morning in early winter, Salma Arabi stops at a table in Dewey's Copper Cafe at the Moline Public Library. A customer is seated there. As Arabi pulls out the opposite chair to seat herself at the table, she exclaims, "Ah! We were just wondering where you were. We hadn't seen you in a while!"

In that moment, it is easy to see what Arabi means when she says, in her six years operating the cafe, the thing she has enjoyed most about being a business owner is the way "customers are not just customers, but friends. We always have conversations going."

It also is clear how this business model arises naturally from her warm regard for the Quad-Cities, a place she never had heard of while growing up in Syria and Libya but a place she now speaks about with unbounded affection."Oh, we love the people. We love our neighbors, love living in the Midwest in general," she says. "I have cousins on both coasts who are always wondering, 'Why aren't you on the coast?' They don't know how quiet and peaceful and nice it is. The Quad-Cities has everything you need, but it's small enough you can still have an easy life."

That's high praise from a woman who prides herself on having lived on three continents. She describes the city of her birth, Damascus, as a place famous for its jasmine flowers, which scent the streets while in bloom. It also is a place rich in history, the oldest continuously functioning capital city in the world.

Her family was a little unsure when Arabi and her husband, Moutaz Kotob, announced their plans to move to the Quad-Cities. They had been attending school at the University of Missouri-Rolla and initially had planned to return home upon completing their degrees. However, Mr. Kotob was hired by Fidlar and Chambers while completing his Ph.D. in computer engineering, and the plans changed.

The year was 1993. Stories of the flooding in the area were making the rounds on news channels. "My mother said, 'You're crazy to be moving someplace underwater!'" Arabi says with a chuckle.

Having lived in so many places has given her a wonderful opportunity to see what is distinctive about different cultures and what different people have in common, she says. "The similarities are always more," she says.

It's an insight she hopes is shared by her three children, Hela, Atef and Seema Kotob, who each were born in the U.S. but have traveled to their parents' native land many times. "I want them to be as proud to be from different cultures as I am," Arabi says.

One of the blessings of a multicultural background, she says, is you don't take things for granted as easily. "When we go to Syria, we miss the States, and when we are in the States, we miss Syria," she says. "It makes what is wonderful about each place easier to see."

For her, one thing that has been particularly enjoyable about her life in the Quad-Cities has been realizing her aspirations of owning her own business."It was a dream of mine," says Arabi, who describes herself as coming from a family of business owners. Her father was a merchant, as are her brothers. "I didn't realized how much I wanted a business until I owned it."

Although she previously had not worked in food service, she says she was given a lot of wonderful advice starting out from Karen Brinson, of Dewey's Cafe at the Bettendorf Public Library, where Arabi's daughter worked in high school. She is proud of the special touches that make Dewey's Copper Cafe at the Moline Public Library unique the signature garlic sauce for one of the chicken sandwiches and the hummus made fresh on site.

She also is enormously proud of her staff, visibly brightening as she speaks of them. "I have a wonderful staff; I'm very proud of them," she says.

If she thinks of customers as friends, her relationship with her employees approaches that of family. It's clear the affection is mutual. After Arabi finishes her conversation with the customer at the table, she joins another at the counter. Zain Dada, a former employee, has returned to the cafe for a visit. While chatting with Arabi and the staff, he confesses he never worked a shift during which they baked brownies.

Arabi seemed incredulous. Stepping behind the counter, she calls to him. "You can't leave before you make brownies. Come! We'll show you how!" Sarah J. Gardner is editor of Radish magazine.

Dewey's Copper Cafe

Adjacent to the Moline Public Library, 3210 41st St., Moline, serving coffee, tea, smoothies, sandwiches, soup and snacks.
Monday through Thursday: 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Friday: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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1720 5th Ave., Moline, IL 61265