Savvy mid-Hudsonites already know that, if you need a mini-vacation but only have a few hours to spare, the Rondout waterfront in Kingston is the place to go. Strolling along the Strand, watching the ducks and the kayaks float by, dreaming about where you might sail in one of those sailboats tied up at the marinas…you might almost be exploring some seaside resort town. And when you’ve walked up an appetite, you have your choice of many fine restaurants and watering holes, most offering sidewalk-café-style dining since the pandemic hit.
If you’re a resident of the neighborhood, however, you’ve also noticed that some amenities are lacking, such as a deli to buy a quart of milk within reasonable walking distance, or a storefront where you could grab a single slice of pizza instead of a whole pie. Rumors abound regarding imminent changes that may fulfill some such needs. But, since the closure of Redstart Coffee a couple of years ago, there wasn’t even a place to stop in for a cup of java and a quick, portable snack – until quite recently.
Kaira Tiegen and J. T. Pinna, who live just a few blocks from the waterfront, couldn’t help noticing the gaps in services, and decided to do something about them. “The Rondout has a tremendous amount of takeout, but the closest café is Monkey Joe’s, about a mile away,” Pinna observes. “One of the things missing from the neighborhood was a coffeeshop and gathering place.”
The onset of COVID-19 brought Pinna’s 20-year career in national security and international development to a screeching halt. “I went from flying 200,000 miles a year to zero,” he says. “I had just come back from a development contract in Jordan, and spent time in Syria and Kurdistan before that.” Clearly, it was time to find something completely different to do.
Tiegen, meanwhile, had a long career in corporate hospitality under her belt and deep family roots in America’s “coffee capital”: “My dad’s dad owned the first A&W chain in Seattle,” she notes. “I always wanted to have a coffeeshop.”
So, the couple took a look around their neighborhood, found a storefront that used to house the offices of Hudson River Tours and took the plunge in 2020, pandemic be damned. “I decided I was going to retire and make donuts,” Pinna says.
And so the Half Moon Rondout Café came into being. The building never having been a restaurant before, massive renovations were in order. “I did my own plumbing and electric. I built the counters,” Pinna reports. “I just installed that ice machine last week.” Opening a business in a historic district, the new entrepreneurs had to satisfy the City of Kingston’s Heritage Area Commission as well as the county’s Department of Health. But it all came together, and now 36 Broadway is a welcoming space for visitors in quest of a snack.
(Video: Dion Ogust)
The front of the shop features a sunny space with a long wooden bench for sitting and a counter displaying its wares. Antique bakery contraptions, such as a dough divider manufactured in Fishkill, are arrayed around the perimeter. Above the white-painted wainscoting, the walls are festooned with a fascinating array of framed images, many of them historical photographs with connections to the Hudson Valley. Those connections are sometimes obscure, but J. T. will be happy to explain them. For example, that famous image of T. E. Lawrence was taken by globetrotting broadcaster Lowell Thomas, whose archives are stored at Marist College.
The rear of the shop is the inner sanctum, the mad scientists’ laboratory where Pinna and Tiegen make donuts to order. That’s right: These treats don’t sit out on the counter getting stale, not even for a minute. “We realized the one thing that made a donut great was that it was hot,” Tiegen says. Their automated 1950s contraption, called a Donut Robot 42, can crank out a single donut in a minute-and-a-half, a dozen in less than four minutes. Beignet dough is mixed, one small batch at a time, and loaded into a hopper that extrudes a ring of dough into a tray of hot oil; a steel conveyor belt drags the donut along, flips it over to fry on the other side and then lifts it out to drain.
These petite donuts are not only super-fresh and hot when you buy them, but also feather-light. According to Pinna, the recipe for the dough dates back to the French and Indian War in 1757: General Montcalm brought a French chef along when he took possession of Fort William Henry from the English. You won’t find these delicacies weighed down with heavy glaze or icing; Half Moon’s donuts come in plain, dusted with sugar or a cinnamon/sugar mix only – except for the weekly flavor specials, which will be maple by the time this issue hits the stands.
Dips are also available on the side, such as a chocolate bourbon ganache.
What if donuts aren’t your thing? Half Moon also offers raspberry crumbcake and exquisite chocolate babka, available by the slice or a whole loaf. Pinna learned to make babka the old-school way when he lived in Russia for ten years, from a professor at the Pushkin Institute. If you get invited to a fancy dinner party once the pandemic is over and want to make a powerful impression on your hosts, bring along a loaf of this stuff.
Oh, and did we mention that this place is a coffeeshop? You can get your java any way you like it here, including espresso. The delicious house blend is a dark roast from Seattle by way of Brooklyn, says Tiegen. You can also get chai, Turkish tea hot or cold from a samovar, freshly made lemonade from an urn with lemon wedges floating in it.
Despite the challenging timing of its November 9 opening, Half Moon has been a hit among Rondout neighbors and out-of-town visitors alike. The proprietors estimate a clientele that’s 80 percent local, 20 percent transient on weekdays, more like 60/40 on weekends. There’s a commuter crowd first thing in the morning, grabbing a coffee and donut to go; folks en route to a meeting often buy a dozen or two. “I can burn my bridges all year long, but if I bring in a bag of these donuts, all is forgiven,” one regular customer told them.
“We’ve had families sledding down on snow days,” reports Pinna. “We’re the only place that’s always open.” Official hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, but if people keep walking in, the place often stays open later. “We live halfway up the block,” he says with a smile and a shrug.
Downtown Kingston is a long way from Kurdistan, but it’s home now – and thankfully, close enough to most Hudson Valley One readers. To learn more, check out www.facebook.com/halfmoonrondoutcafe.