As the owner of Okay Café in Neukölln, Marie-Louise ‘Makki’ Crona creates delicious things to share with others, pastries and home cooked meals that come directly from the heart. Born and raised in Stockholm, where going out to eat is more expensive, “I missed just hanging out at each other’s homes, so this was also a reason why I started cooking more here for other people.” The crowd favorite was always her cinnamon buns, which she baked according to traditional Swedish style, simple, rustic, and seasoned with a hint of cardamom. “I think it started as a cure for homesickness because it’s such a typical thing from Sweden and something we always had at home.”
She received such great feedback from her friends in Berlin that she decided to start selling them at the Neukölln Flohmarkt. “It was an extension of a reason why I cook for friends and family. I got this social thing going on, and this was another level of it: I met strangers and had this really good feedback instantly. It became an extension of the home environment to cook for other people. That’s how it started for me.” While she didn’t realize it at the time, it was the beginning of a path in the culinary world where this sense of connection and fulfillment would become a central passion in her professional life.
“I don’t think I’m the most pushy person socially, so for me it’s kind of this easy way to meet people, to connect and interact with them. I’m not gonna be the clown or be the center of attention. It’s a way to reach out to people and create an environment for them.”
She took to the blogosphere, starting Makki’s Mash and from there, organized some more formalized pop-up events around the city. “I hadn’t worked in a kitchen before so I was going by feeling and trying, and I thought, ‘This is actually great! I think I want to open something of my own.” She managed to acquire a space out of which she opened Okay Café in April 2016. “It was surreal because it’s one of those things that I had in the back of my mind, but thought it will never happen, or if it does, it will be 10 years from now. I didn’t know it would actually work out.”
“I wrote a business plan in a week. I went to the real estate agent with cinnamon buns, and was like, ‘So, I want to open a Swedish café!’
At Okay Café, she has been able to bring a touch of Sweden to the lives of anyone who stops in. Each individual detail speaks to her own thoughtful intentions, in the form of minimalistic Scandinavian design hinted with bits of warmth and coziness in the décor, plants, and imagery, along with the dog that roams the café and cuddles with whichever patrons are currently sitting on his favorite bench. Makki has been pleased to see the way that many Swedes gravitate to the café, and she has even used the space to honor their cultural holidays and events including a midsummer party last June.
In the day-to-day, however, Makki tries not to make traditionalism too much of a selling point, and instead focuses on cultivating a space for people to come for a fika, a staple to life in Sweden centered around savoring some moments over coffee. “It’s such a huge part of the social culture in Sweden. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you do it from when you’re a child until you die. It’s just what you do.”
Emanating from her desire to share something so important to her personally, the café is like a small reprieve of home where everyone is invited. “We have this mix of people: family coming with kids for Sunday brunch, super hip people who take cool Instagram pictures, and also old people from the hood. I hope everybody can feel good coming here.”
Then there is the food. Beyond the clear Swedish influences with items like traditional pancakes and a variety of different desserts, including, of course, her famous cinnamon buns, the menu she has created speaks even more deeply of her personal values. Rather than simply serving the default trends or going the gimmicky route by offering the kinds Swedish dishes people only eat on holidays, she strives for a sense of inclusivity and positivity in her creations, made to enrich daily life.
The food is vegetarian because Makki is one herself; knowing that the things she prepares for others are genuinely tasty and nourishing is key to her culinary process. “It would feel really strange to serve something I can’t or wouldn’t eat.” That said, the restaurant isn’t advertised as vegetarian because she doesn’t want to claim all the baggage that comes with the label. “It’s not hiding, it’s just that it’s not our main selling point. The fact that we are vegetarian is just a bonus.” She wants everyone to find things that they can enjoy no matter the dietary persuasion.
“We try that everything we do gets an equal amount of love, we really want to send something that can make anyone happy.”
It all goes even deeper than this. There is a sense that Makki is taking care of the people who visit her café in her own gentle way with regard to something that is even closer to her heart. She acknowledges a subtext that exists for many—especially women—even in the world of foodies: that an inclination toward healthy eating serves as a cover up for more deeply-seated issues around body image and dietary policing. “I think as a woman, especially, there’s a lot of pressure body-wise; there’s also all these trends with food, and I think it’s so easy to go overboard. It can be just another way to disguise pressure on your body. I really want it to be that anyone can come here, and no matter what your history with eating is, you shouldn’t feel like you can only pick something that would make you skinny, or that’s super healthy.”
To put this conviction into action, “I really try to find the balance. You should be able to have healthy options if you want, but you also should be able to have a really greasy hangover sandwich if you need that. Sure, you can have a salad for lunch but then why not I have some cake afterward?”
Through her own humble genuity, Makki has succeeded in providing people from all walks of life with a space that feels like home. “I try to create food that makes people happy and feel that we actually do care, even if we don’t have any outspoken message on how we do things.”
This post was originally published on The Food Keeper, a project co-founded with Fanette Guilloud.