Entrepreneur Couple from Albania Spreads Good Will Through Coffee

The chance of winning the diversity visa lottery is bitterly low—about one percent. Mateo Hodo’s family won the lottery, granting them U.S. residency, in 2002, and moved from Albania to Michigan and, later, Maine. Alba Zakja won the lottery in 2009, and moved to Maine to be near Mateo, a high school friend whom she had recently begun dating. Today the couple is married and lives in Portland. “Yes,” says Zakja, “I guess it was meant to be.”

In January 2017, the couple opened a cafe where they can share, if not their good luck, then surely their good cheer. Coffee ME Up, on east Cumberland Avenue, serves a mix of Albanian and American sandwiches, soups, and pastries, and hews to a mission to generate warmth and goodwill. Zakja and her mother make the baklava, 100 layers of handmade phyllo dough crafted over four days’ time and lightly sweetened with homemade sugar syrup. Hodo gives the hugs to any customer in need.

“The thing that we wanted most when we opened this coffee shop was to create a ripple effect, so that people would leave happy,” Zakja says. “We’re strong believers that if you start your day right that’s going to carry on through the day and maybe make so many more people happier, and have a good impact throughout the whole community.”

Zakja arrived in the United States at the height of the Great Recession with a finance degree from the University of New York Tirana, a SUNY affiliate in Albania. With work scarce, she landed a server job at Dunkin’ Donuts, quickly moving into management and gaining an unintended education in the restaurant business. “Sometimes things are meant to be that way, because it shifts your interest somewhere else,” she says. Hodo, meanwhile, worked in construction and became a contractor.

We worked hard, we saved, and we have loans. It had to be hard work from both of us.”

Today the couple owns a residential fourplex and, after years of 100-hour work weeks each, now has four full-time employees at Coffee ME Up. “We worked hard, we saved, and we have loans,” Zakja says. “It had to be hard work from both of us.”

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