After working at several Traverse City restaurants including Trattoria Stella and Alliance, Christian Geoghegan was inspired to open Hexenbelle in November 2020. The new café is serving up delish vegetarian comfort food and making sure everyone feels welcome.

Chef Christian Geoghegan’s first food memories are of a round table heaped with hummus, tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves, surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins all sharing a meal prepared by Christian’s grandmother. “Arab hospitality is built on making someone feel showered with love, and food is the way to do that,” says Christian, who uses they/them pronouns.

That love is what Christian and business partner/ fiancée/espresso extraordinaire Heather Webber try to convey with every dish, baked good and cup of coffee served at Hexenbelle in Traverse City’s Warehouse MRKT. The café opened in November 2020, offering breakfast and lunch along with weekly dinner specials. A rotating, all-vegetarian menu features global comfort foods, many inspired by Christian’s Palestinian heritage: coconut curry fried rice; maftoul (Palestinian couscous); lattes with turmeric and ginger; a peanut butter tahini cookie that’s unexpected and brilliant; and hummus, of course.

“I use hummus as an example for everything,” Christian says. “Hummus to me is my ride or die; it’d be my last meal. It’s comforting, and when I eat it I get this feeling in my chest from when I was a kid. That’s what we’re going for—that emotion. And if hummus is my ride or die, then there must be a hummus for everybody, every culture. That hummus to someone else might be fried rice, it might be green bean casserole, it might be lox and bagels.”

And it’s not just the menu that’s comforting—everything at Hexenbelle is meant to be soothing, from the soft pink walls (inspired by a woman’s womb) to the books lined up on the window shelf waiting to be read when the café opens for in-person dining (at the time of publication Hexenbelle was offering to go and patio seating only). “We’re majority women-owned, queer, non-binary, I’m brown—all these things—and we want it to be a place you come to and feel instantly welcomed and safe, especially for people who don’t have those spaces,” Christian says. “We want to make people happy, and the way I know how to do that is through food, and the way Heather knows how to do that is through coffee.”

But Christian’s path to becoming a chef didn’t start with culinary school. They were hired and training to be a financial advisor at Edward Jones in Traverse City and soon realized it wasn’t the right fit. Having held jobs as a dishwasher, host, server and bar back, Christian decided to join the team at Harvest after leaving the financial services world, and that’s where they met Chef James Bloomfield. James was doing a pop-up dinner with Pete Peterson of Tapawingo and asked if Christian wanted to help with front of house. “I remember that night it hit me in the chest; this is what I want to do,” Christian says. “I started coming in on my days off to learn how to prep properly, how to break down a chicken, how to cut a bunch of root vegetables, the most basic things. I was learning about ingredients I’d never heard of. I was obsessed.” James later opened Alliance in 2016, and Christian was hired to work in the kitchen. Christian also spent more than a year at Trattoria Stella and was a part of The Cooks’ House Young Chefs Dinner in 2018. When Alliance closed in September 2020, Hexenbelle took over the same space a few months later.

“I know how much a good cup of coffee or a bite of food can change your whole day; I mean it changed my life,” Christian says. “I didn’t know anything about coffee until I went to BLK/MRKT down the hall, which is where I met Heather, who I’m now engaged to. We have all these memories surrounding food. I hope our guests will share their memories with us and help inspire our menu.”

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Find this article and more in the May 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse Magazine delivered to your door each month.