Food & DrinkFood Features

Loto Café Opens in Former EastSide Local Space at Eastway Crossing

An oasis reborn

The counter at Loto Café
Loto Café, in the Eastway Crossing Shopping Center. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The cool yet cozy café is dead; long live the (new) cool yet cozy café!

Visitors to VisArt Video or nearby businesses like Bart’s Mart, Armada Skate Shop or Book Buyers may have noticed changes coming to east Charlotte’s coolest strip mall. Tucked into an alcove at the Eastway Crossing shopping center, at the end of a long sunlit patio, EastSide Local had been serving some of the city’s best vegan and vegetarian fare for close to four years.

In April 2022, Gina Stewart and Brenda Gambill, restaurant founders, lifemates and bandmates in Queen City Americana rock band Doubting Thomas, closed the hip yet unpretentious eatery. 

Many mourned its passing. In Queen City Nerve’s 2022 Best in the Nest issue, we wrote, “Something may reopen at the end of the patio, but it won’t be nearly as cool as EastSide Local.” We were wrong.

Leonardo and Kellie Solis, lifemates and bandmates in experimental electronic pop duo Solis, have taken over the former EastSide Local space. On a chilly February morning, they hosted a soft opening for their new Latino-influenced coffee shop Loto Café, named after the Spanish word for their 2-year-old son Remy’s middle name Lotus. Leonardo estimates that more than 300 customers passed through the café’s doors that morning.

“They were ecstatic,” Leonardo says, “[We felt] all their love and support.”

As executive director of nearby VisArt, Stewart was instrumental in helping her successors settle into the space. She notes that there are differences between her old establishment and the one that supplanted it. EastSide Local boasted a diverse and eclectic menu centered on Gambill’s vegan and vegetarian creations. Loto Café launched with a menu comprised of craft coffees, meat and vegetarian empanadas and gluten-free and pan dulce pastries, designed as a springboard for further culinary expansion.

“Their menu is smaller than what we did at ESL, but it’s perfect,” Stewart says. “If [I did] it again, I would have done something like what they’re doing. It’s a smart, concise plan.”

Despite the differences, there’s an undeniable symmetry in this culinary changing of the guard at Eastway Crossing. With ESL, the city lost a labor of love nurtured by two of its respected and beloved musicians. With Loto Café, Charlotte gains the same. 

“I tell Kellie if I wasn’t in the music industry, I would be in a kitchen somewhere,” Leonardo offers. “Food … dramatically connects me to my ancestors in a deeper way than music sometimes.”

“Food is Leo’s dream child,” says Kellie.

Recipes and bloodlines

The story of Loto Café can be seen as the recent rising of a coffee shop phoenix from the ashes of a vegan eatery, but the story goes back a further than that. It begins with a boy growing up in the late 1980s in San Bernardino, California, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, enraptured by a family kitchen filled with warmth and enticing aromas.

Growing up in a household with six children — a mix of siblings and cousins — Leonardo remembers the making of each meal as a community-minded activity. As a young boy he often helped his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. The basics of Mexican cuisine, like making fresh tortillas and salsa, were integral to his upbringing.

“I remember weekends and holidays where there were tamales, mole and very deep flavors,” Leonardo says.

He recalls his grandmother purchasing half of a pig at a butcher shop and using every part of the animal.

“She would be out in the backyard with this massive cast-iron pan over an open flame … [making] chicharrón and chorizo. I have a vivid memory of growing up around an open fire.”

Inspired by his musician father who taught him how to play, Leonardo pursued his other passion. He moved to Hollywood at age 17 to study audio recording at Musicians Institute. He then began touring the U.S. and overseas as a musician and engineer in 2009.

“That exposed me to a lot of other cultures and so many different types of food,” Leonardo says. “I always joke that the road raised me.”

“It wasn’t until I met Leo that I was introduced to the aspect [of] community around food,” Kellie says. 

Leo and Kellie Solis stick out their tongs and pretend to scream behind the counter at Loto Café
Leo and Kellie Solis, co-owners of Loto Café in the Eastway Crossing Shopping Center. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Growing up in Charlotte since second grade, she recalls few transcendent food experiences with her family prior to meeting her husband. “We had some Hamburger Helper moments,” she says with a laugh.

The couple met at a show at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach in 2009 when Leonardo was touring with Charlotte alternative group Paper Tongues.

“The way Leo talked about food was different for me, and I loved that,” Kellie says.

After marrying in 2011, the couple moved around. By 2013 they had settled in Charlotte, where they started writing and recording their sometimes dark, often winsome brand of lush and dreamlike electronic pop. With songwriter Kellie on piano and vocals and producer Leonardo on multiple instruments, Solis released a self-tiled EP in 2016 and the full-length album Veil in 2020. The couple continues to play and record as Solis, with a new album planned for later this year.

 

In addition, Leonardo launched the record label Four Finger Records with close friend Jeremy Ryan Smith. In 2022, Kellie, Leonardo and Ryan Smith added to their already full plate by launching Gigantic Recording Company. A business that takes customer’s demos and rough drafts of tunes and turns them into fully produced professional-sounding songs.

During this time, the couple began to get involved in Charlotte’s food scene. Their explorations sparked the genesis of Loto Café. Spurred by his love of coffee, which has been fueled by his extensive travels, along with a friendship with James Yoder, co-owner of Not Just Coffee and Night Swim Coffee, Leonardo started to delve into curated coffee concepts. 

Leonardo and Kellie began to think in terms of launching coffee shop pop-ups. The seed for a Latin-style café was germinating.

Transition at EastSide

Meanwhile, despite the enthusiastic response to EastSide Local and Stewart and Gambill’s efforts to weather the economic downturn brought by the COVID pandemic, the partners were getting ground down by long hours and lack of staff.

“I am not one to give up easy,” Stewart says, “but it has been a grueling couple of years.” 

Inside of five months, Stewart lost both of her parents in 2022. She was working constantly and felt she couldn’t take time off from the business to spend more time with her ailing mother. 

At the same time, as executive director of VisArt, Stewart launched a multi-purpose screening room and started to define what the nonprofit would be beyond just a neighborhood video store.

VisArt had been collaborating with EastSide Local, presenting food/drink/movie screening combos. Now, as the struggles mounted at the eatery, Stewart had an epiphany. She realized that the collaborative events and programs she brokered between VisArt and EastSide Local were her true calling.

“My priorities shifted,” Stewart says. “What I love more than anything is collaboration. My real gift is pulling people together and finding ways to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. [That] was going to [happen] more through VisArt than it was ESL.” 

Another factor in Stewart and Gambill’s decision to close the café was an uptick in activity in the pair’s music career. After a successful reunion gig at Neighborhood Theatre, the long-semi-dormant Doubting Thomas band became a full-time concern again, with a new album on the way. Stewart and Gambill also teamed up with a longtime friend, singer/songwriter Christy Snow, to form the all-woman five-piece The Christy Snow Band. The group has already booked several festival gigs.

Stewart says she feels the heartbreak of the people who loved EastSide Local, but that she and Gambill just had to walk away. They had put much into the eatery, and felt they had little to show for it. 

“We were never rich people,” Stewart says. “We didn’t have deep pockets.”

The sale of EastSide Local became problematic. A garage door onto the patio meant that VisArt and whoever moved into the vacated EastSide Local property would share the outdoor space. It would be ideal if the neighboring businesses were compatible, Stewart says, especially with VisArt’s increasing calendar of events and screenings. 

An initial sale to local businessmen connected to the restaurant Moo & Brew ended with the buyers selling up and putting the property back on the market. The instability was resolved when a private third party brought the lease on the old EastSide Local property and gifted it to VisArt.

It was at this point that Leonardo entered the picture. 

From pop-up to full blown café 

“Leo Solis and I are longtime friends,” Stewart says. The pair had met on a gig where they were both working as audio engineers. Leonardo was subsequently surprised to learn that Stewart was also co-owner of EastSide Local.

“I thought it was such a cool thing for somebody to be involved with music plus the coffee world,” Leonardo says. 

Two weeks before Christmas Eve 2022, he reached out to Stewart and asked if the eatery was open because he wanted to stop in and get a cup of coffee. That’s when Leonardo learned the space was vacant. 

He presented a plan for a café where he and Kellie would serve coffee and some traditional Latino pastries in the mornings. The idea snowballed.

“We talked about doing pop-ups dozen of times before,” Kellie says, “usually something centered around coffee and Mexican recipes Leo grew up with.”

After a single phone call with Stewart, Leonardo came back to Kellie with a whole menu. What had been meant as a small weekend pop-up had turned into a full-blown coffee shop. 

“It happened fast,” Kellie says. She remembers the couple heading out with Remy to pick up the keys to their new business on Christmas Eve, not even three weeks after their first conversation with Stewart about the idea. 

“It’s the best possible outcome,” Stewart says.

By the time of Loto Café’s Feb. 3 soft opening, Gambill had progressed on a redesign of the patio that reflects the space’s synergy with VisArt. A black-and-white theme suggests frames of film, augmented with movie posters. Leonardo and Kellie also profess their love for VisArt and look forward to future collaborations with the nonprofit where their café will provide themed food for some screenings and events.

An outdoor easel sign reads Loto Café
The entrance to the new patio at Loto Café. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Inside the café, white contrasted by bold reds are the dominant aesthetics. Leonardo says the décor is inspired by his father’s career in construction while also being derived from Latino mom-and-pop shops Leonardo would frequent as a child in L.A. and Mexico City. 

“We did the entire build by ourselves and created the drywall texture … with stucco,” he says. 

With no dishwasher at the moment, the café has made all plates and utensils disposable, though Loto Café is composting the food and utensils through Crown Town Compost.

“Anything you get from the café will be able to go right into the compost bins that we have,” she says.

Leonardo and Kellie also have something that Stewart and Gambill seldom had: staff, albeit a small one.

“We have Jeremy Radio (Four Finger co-founder Jeremy Ryan Smith) and coffee jedi LaChrista McArthur, who developed our coffee program,” Leonardo says.

The Solis family also offers remote support from New Mexico in the form of Leonardo’s parents who own a restaurant there, and his sister, Betsy, who helped create the café’s concept.

With a successful soft opening under their belt, Leonardo and Kellie look forward to their grand opening. The café has sponsors lined up and the opening will be patterned on the community swap meets Leonardo remembers from his childhood where he bought used Nintendo games. It will be a celebration of diversity in the local small business community on Charlotte’s east side, where the Solis family resides.

“We want to brand it as ‘Loto Swap Meet,’ and host it every first Saturday of every month, spring and summer,” Leonardo says. 

He sees the café as going beyond being a business and becoming a focal point for the east Charlotte community.

“I feel like I’m back to that melting pot of hard-working families that want to create a better environment for their kids,” Leonardo says. “I want people to feel the love.” 

“I’d like people to see Loto Café as somewhere anyone can feel comfortable when they walk in,” Kellie says. “I want them to feel like you belong here.”


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