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Lily’s cafe introduces Vienna to Iraqi treat with a chocolate twist

Vienna has hosted many tenants at 175 Maple Avenue East over the years, from a gelato shop to a Persian rug store and America’s arch support experts, but the southwestern corner of Maple Avenue and Park Street hasn’t seen anything quite like Lily’s Chocolate & Coffee.

The cafe, which held its grand opening this past Saturday (July 10), purports to be the first in the U.S. to specialize in lokma, a fried dough pastry popular in the Middle East and Mediterranean.

Owner Saifalden Alobaidi and his sister Lily Alobaidi wanted to share a taste of their native Iraq with their adopted home, but knowing that many potential customers might not be familiar with the treat, they decided to add their own touch, substituting the traditional honey or date syrup coating with a drizzle of chocolate.

“It’s a family-owned business,” Saifalden told Tysons Reporter. “We’re just trying to bring our culture from back home, from Iraq, introduce it to the community here…and make a friendly place, so people can come to a different vibe, a different coffee shop style than normal.”

The lokma, which can be filled with peanut butter or nutella, isn’t the only thing that distinguishes the Town of Vienna’s newest eatery, which operates from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.

In fact, just about everything in Lily’s Chocolate has been specially designed, from the cardamom-spiced hot tea and Belgium-imported chocolate to the mousse, cakes, and other bakery-style desserts that Lily makes herself each day.

The coffee is a blend of Guatemalan and Brazilian beans that the Alobaidis developed through “a lot of coffee tasting,” Saifalden says. The beans are roasted by Grace Street Coffee in Georgetown, which has formed a partnership with Lily’s Chocolate.

Even the cafe’s tables, chairs, lighting fixtures, and other furnishings were custom-made by Saifalden, who also works as a civil engineer and owns a construction business. This is his first venture into the food service world.

“We’re trying to be unique so it’s not repetitive,” Saifalden said. “Even the coffee taste we have, the pastry we sell, the style of the place, we’re trying to be different than what’s in the market.”

The Alobaidis immigrated from Iraq to the U.S. — specifically to Arizona — in 2009, according to Saifalden, who obtained a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Arizona before entering construction work.

After traveling from state to state for a while, he moved to McLean in 2016, and he and Lily came up with the idea for a lokma shop, signing a lease for the Maple Avenue spot in October 2020.

Though he now lives in Reston, Saifalden says he loves the Town of Vienna for its family-friendly atmosphere and an increasingly diverse population that embraces different cuisines and cultures. The town’s central location within Fairfax County and efforts to support small businesses heightened its attractiveness.

Getting Lily’s Chocolate off the ground was not without its challenges, though, as the COVID-19 pandemic delayed shipments and prolonged the licensing process and other preparations.

Saifalden also allows that he has gotten a few comments about the availability of parking at the site, which is prominently but awkwardly situated at the intersection of two busy streets with little room for drivers to manuever into or out of spaces without blocking traffic.

The building does have additional parking in the back, and he says the cafe is working to put up a sign to make that clearer to passersby. He also anticipates getting reliable foot traffic, including from pedestrians and bicyclists coming into town on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.

According to Saifalden, Lily’s Chocolate drew over 300 people between 6 and 9 p.m. for its grand opening, which offered free pastries, tea, and coffee. The cafe has also gotten some social media buzz, thanks in part to the popular Vienna VA Foodies Facebook group.

Expansion plans are already taking shape. A friend has expressed interest in starting a franchise in Georgia, and the Alobaidis are looking at a possible location in Georgetown to complement their partnership with Grace Street Coffee.

“We’ve been getting a lot of feedback from people about the place, the design, the location, the scene, the quality of the coffee, the pastry or the lokma that we are serving, and a lot of reviews on Facebook, on Instagram as well,” Saifalden said. “We appreciate everybody’s business here.”

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