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Cafe Zooka transforming into The Pantry Cafe

Hershey - Location, reputation and history - a new local eatery can boast all three of those important ingredients, giving The Pantry Cafe at the Hershey Story a recipe for success.

Jim and Cindy Hess, owners and operators of The Hershey Pantry, Irv's Pub and Desserts Inc., all located in Hershey, have added another culinary feather to their cap with the "The Pantry Cafe at the Hershey Story."

Decked out in colors of chocolate, cream and caramel, Chocolatetown USA is the perfect place for the new cafe, which will officially open on Jan. 12. Hours will be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

Located in the building that houses The Hershey Story Museum on West Chocolate Avenue, The Pantry Cafe had been the "Zooka Cafe" for the past seven years. Historical prints reflecting the Hershey story line the walls of the cafe, while the muted colors, modern lines and comfy seating work together to give the cafe a relaxing feel. The cafe can seat about 70 people, with outdoor seating for about 20 more.

New owners will bring to the cafe a new and expanded menu and new, longer hours, as well. Some aspects will remain the same, Jim Hess said, explaining that the place will stay "very cafe-like," and that includes free Wi-Fi and a friendly, casual atmosphere.

Hess would also like to bring back to the town some of the sense of community he recalls. As a Hershey native, Jim Hess remembers the Hershey drug store that stood for many years, just east of the cafe.

"I have very fond memories of the drug store that used to be here; it was a gathering place, a place for the community, and we want to convey some of the essence of that," Hess said.

The cafe has the potential to be a popular hub for all sorts of  informal events, he believes. Hess is open to the possibility of live music on occasion, too, although that's one of those details still to be worked out.

"It's a work in progress, and we're still figuring out the details," said Anthony Haubert, spokesman for the M.S. Hershey Foundation. "We're sure it will create a community atmosphere, and that fits in perfectly with the history and the museum; it's just a good thing."

The eatery still operated as Cafe Zooka throughout the holidays and up until this past Sunday. With opening day just a week away, the transition has brought "all hands on deck," with everybody involved frantically working toward the goal of opening on time with everything in place.

"The Hershey Pantry has a great reputation, and we're a community museum that is all about history, so we're thrilled they're coming into the building," said Amy Bischof, Director of The Hershey Story Museum. "We're looking forward to the partnership."

The downtown Hershey association also supports the goal of getting more people downtown, to take advantage of the services and businesses in the community, Bischof said, and the new cafe can be a perfect example of locals having a place to go, to grab a bite and relax.

"We want this building to be a place where the community can come and do all sorts of things, not just a museum visit," Bischof said. "We're hoping local people will come here because you can come to the Cafe and don't have to pay an admission fee (to the museum)."

One big "plus" is that folks will be able to come to the cafe before the museum is open and after it closes for the day, by way of the cafe entrance on the west side of the building.

Colette McNitt will be the general manager of the Pantry Cafe, and Hillery Keller will be the assistant manager; together the two have more than 20 years' experience in their roles with The Hershey Pantry. Much of the management at the renowned Hershey Pantry will be on hand to guide the Cafe, too, McNitt said.

"It's a great opportunity for us, especially because it's downtown," McNitt said. "I think we're going to have lots of fun."

A consultant was also hired to help with menu planning, and a pastry team will be working on fashioning mouth-watering desserts.

"We'll start with some 'grab-and-go' foods, like prepared salads, fruit cups, muffins, goodies from the bakery that people can take with them, "McNitt said. "We'll pull some of the favorites that everybody likes from the Pantry, things like the dill chicken salad - and one of our specialties - baked oatmeal."

The cafe will continue to offer "Peete's Coffees, as well as smoothies, blended iced coffees, and other hot and cold drink specialties.

The best cafe food is always fresh food, McNitt said, and the Pantry Cafe will have plenty of fresh salads, soups and sandwiches - as well as a dizzying amount of specialty desserts.

Earlier opening hours means that breakfast will now be available at the cafe. Breakfast sandwiches, specialty bagels, "egg skillet" meals, all kinds of muffins and several coffees will be offered to help start the day for cafe patrons.

"We'll have some of the same cooks and we'll definitely have the same quality that they get at the Hershey Pantry," McNitt said.

Ashley Stoltz is the office manager for all four of the Hess' companies.

All the desserts at the Pantry Cafe will be made at Desserts Inc. and will include special signature desserts like Hershey Kiss Pie, Reese' Peanut Butter Cupcake and "Take 5" brownies, Stoltz said.

Until the cafe's opening day on Jan. 12, a limited number of take-out items will be available, McNitt said.

With about 125,000 visitors to the Hershey Story Museum every year, McNitt said she knows they'll be busy.

"And we're going to make it even busier," McNitt said.