It just got easier to find a charming, unique café serving gourmet teas and eats with a side order of community ambiance. Open just one month, Babycat Milkbar has become a local Wilton hangout offering tea, coffee and yummy treats as well as a place that feels like home.
The fun catch? It’s a temporary, ‘pop-up’ spot—at least for now. A pop-up store is a trendy, short-term retail space that opens for a brief period and creates a buzz by word of mouth.
Babycat Milkbar, Wilton’s version of this hip, modern tavern, has quickly generated that buzz. It’s become a meeting place for residents, with book clubs, moms groups and business people making it a regular stop on their day out and about.
“I have a big communal table, because I want the Milkbar to be a great community gathering place. I wanted to create a warm, inviting place where people can come and find good friendship and something great to eat and drink," said owner Jeena Choi.
Choi liked the term ‘milkbar’ to describe her idea for her café.
“A milkbar is a popular UK and Australian term for a snack shop. Parents can come in and get a coffee and a newspaper, and kids come in after school for cookies and milk. Milkbar connotes that my café is kid-friendly, and it goes with the cat theme of our brand name.”
“Brand name” refers to Mamacat Q Teas, the line of specialty blended herbal teas Choi started with her husband Frank Kwei, who has been in the tea business for over a dozen years.
“When I had our first child, Isabella, I thought there was a market for moms and kids to share a drink together," said Choi.
"But when I was pregnant with my second child, I had gestational diabetes. And that’s what made me revisit the idea I had of teas for moms and kids to share. Because I love sweet tea in the morning, and I couldn’t have that, so Frank started blending things for me. One day Isabella asked to have a sip of my tea, because it was pink. And I thought, oh yeah, it’s herbs and it’s natural, why not? There are no actual tea leaves in it, so there’s no caffeine whatsoever, naturally. So that’s how the idea of the business was born,” recounted Choi.
Growing her business meant creating a brand, so she generated a logo and website, and started taking part in holiday boutiques, event marketing and media outreach. Choi must have liked a challenge—she officially launched the tea line in May 2010 and then six weeks later had her second baby.
“In a very short amount of time, we had Mamacat Q Teas and a ‘babycat,’” she laughed.
Her teas have quickly earned raves from every day customers as well as from influencers in the food world and elsewhere.
"Because of my background in corporate PR, I have a thick skin, so I just walk into the markets and ask for the buyer to give them samples. So I’m now doing wholesale as well to cafes and gourmet markets, like Wilton’s Village Market, all around Fairfield county and New York state. Our teas are also served at Prada headquarters and at Armani," she said.
But it’s Choi's own retail business that she’s now occupied with 24/7. She lucked into a great location, subletting space from the New England Historical Connection furniture store in the Crossways shopping plaza, at the intersection of Routes 7 and 33.
“I got a call from a realtor who told me that John Schnefke, the store’s owner, was interested in hosting a tasting after he saw an article about me in Wilton Magazine,” said Choi.
“I’ve wanted to open a café in Wilton for three years, and I’d been looking for space, but I just couldn’t afford the rent the landlords were asking. John’s store is oozing with charm, there are so many nice nooks and crannies, and I could see that there was a lot of potential. So I said, ‘I don’t want to do a tasting day. Why don’t you give me some space and I can open up the Milkbar?'” said Choi.
In addition to Choi’s own line of teas, she’s stocking her store with tasty, gourmet treats.
“I bring in baked goods that I like, from established small businesses, like the Cake Box in Ridgefield—they have extraordinary cakes and cookies and macaroons. And also SoNo Baking, I love their croissants—we have a variety from them that my husband picks up fresh every morning at 7 a.m,” she said.
“I’m being very selfish by having a shop because I get to carry the things that I like. I’m imposing my palate on the entire town, but actually people like it!”
And they do like it, as the Milkbar has quickly grown popular. Longtime Wilton resident Barbara Dubiel was drawn in and liked what she found. “I saw the lovely signage outside, and wanted to come in, I thought maybe it was an epicurean type shop—which it clearly is. This stands out from what we have in town. I think a lot of things we have are more chain-like stores now, and so it’s nice to have something that’s very unique.”
Choi is hoping more customers feel the same way in order for the Milkbar to change its status from ‘temporary pop-up’ to permanent.
“If the town would like to see us stay, please come in. There’s a new place in town for coffee—and tea!” said Choi.