Food

Change is Brewing

Coffee shops have become shorthand for gentrification. Can the South Side’s newest mean something else?

Zelda Galewsky

Bow Truss Coffee Company opened their Pilsen location without a lot of fanfare this past August. It was a quiet start, store lead Erik Czuprinski said, so much so that in late March, “we still get people coming in saying, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t even know you guys were here.” It wasn’t until January that anonymous handwritten signs appeared, propped up in the store windows overnight: “This is what gentrification looks like!” “Fresh roasted gentrification served here.”

Owner and founder Phil Tadros pressed no vandalism charges, and expressed surprise at being targeted: Bow Truss was a local Chicago business, he told news. He invited the anonymous discontents to step forward for a dialogue. He also announced that the shops would begin serving an eight ounce coffee for one dollar. It wasn’t clear what this meant for a shop whose smallest size typically sells for $2.50, but it seemed to be gesturing toward access, a lowering of the shop’s entry price.

No one seemed more surprised about the pushback that spurred Bow Truss’s dollar coffee offer than the company itself. “If you live in Chicago long enough, you’re going to hear that word, ‘gentrification,’ thrown around at some point or another in some conversation,” says Czuprinski, who lives in Pilsen. “But honestly, when we were opening up this shop that wasn’t even really in our heads at all.”

As Chicago’s coffee culture has boomed, coffee shops have become a kind of shorthand for gentrification: to note that there are more coffee shops on a block than there were ten years ago is to suggest that the block is probably richer, whiter, and hipper than it used to be. A piece in RedEye on the Bow Truss scuffle begins, “The coffeehouse is the international hub of hipsterdom.”

In 2004, after years of lobbying by 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, a Starbucks opened at 71st Street and Stony Island Avenue, the first time the chain had reached south of Hyde Park. Hairston had fought to prove that the location could be profitable, and the Tribune quoted her on its opening: “You are officially a neighborhood when you get a Starbucks.”

In the decade since Hairston got her Starbucks, the South Side has seen more than a dozen coffee shops open. In the past five years alone, Jackalope opened in Bridgeport, Nitecap and La Catrina in Pilsen, Robust in Woodlawn, Plein Air in Hyde Park, and Kusanya in Englewood. Bridgeport Coffee expanded into two more locations, in Hyde Park and the South Loop. Flecks Coffee opened and closed in Chatham. The same summer that saw Bow Truss open on 18th Street brought Currency Exchange Café to Washington Park and Greenline Coffee to Woodlawn. What those shops have and will become, besides “hubs of hipsterdom” depends not just on where they are, but what they seek to build.

Looking at some of the youngest shops, there are other common threads on what a coffee house can mean for a neighborhood: a place to form community, a safe spot, a space for exchange. Tess Kisner, the general manager at Currency Exchange, calls the shop “a breeding ground for new ideas, innovation, gatherings, performance.”

“It’s what maybe a bar used to do,” says Paula Hammernick, Greenline’s manager, “or a small general store. People come together, they meet, they have business interactions.”

“Historically, coffee shops have been a place where people gather and talk,” says Czuprinski at Bow Truss. “There’ve been wars plotted in coffeehouses.”

If you buy into Hairston’s Starbucks metric, Greenline and Currency Exchange have declared their neighborhoods legitimate with their presence. They seek to create communal places in areas that don’t have many, and, in doing so, prove that the neighborhood can support such a space.

Greenline Coffee is a project of Sunshine Gospel Ministry’s business incubator, which looks at neighborhood development through a kind of “teach a man to fish” model: they hope to get the businesses they coach to a level where each entrepreneur can hire somebody.

Last summer the shop employed seven teenagers, who spent the months before opening building out the shop and refurbishing sets of bright yellow chairs, now a sleek dark wood. This summer, Hamernick hopes to hire twenty youth across Greenline, Sunshine, and other nearby businesses. When Hamernick talks about the coffee shop as a space for exchange, she cites a group of regulars—entrepreneurs and activists—who turned their casual run-ins at the shop into the beginnings of a non-profit. Their first project focuses on juvenile justice.

Hamernick frequently recalls a time when 61st Street was a commercial corridor; blown up photos on Greenline’s walls feature nearby intersections in the 1940s. Today, that main drag is a far cry from a commercial center, which is part of the point.

“At the time we started considering it, there weren’t too many other coffee shops in the area,” says Hamernick, “so this was sort of a demonstration project to investors.” The goal was to break even, and Hamernick says they’re “pretty much there.”

One CTA stop north, Currency Exchange also sees their block as a proving ground. The shop advertises coffee, biscuits and a $10 “Blue Plate Special” from big front windows. It’s a head turner: one huge open room, with a window view of the kitchen in back. The blue and white ceramic tabletops were commissions, made in Mexico. Elements from the signage to the robust bookcases are refurbished in the style of Theaster Gates, who runs the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator next door and started Currency Exchange as a private business. The space is leased from the University.

“With this type of avant-garde development that’s happening, we’re kind of under a microscope,” says Manager Tess Kisner. “People are like, ‘Is this gonna work?’ ”

Kisner says the shop had three target audiences in mind: neighborhood residents, the artists working in and with the Incubator next door, and kids from the UofC a few blocks away who, she says, are beginning to make it across the park. While Greenline works to show that Woodlawn can support a business, Currency Exchange has set about proving that their business supports Washington Park.

“It’s an old school neighborhood, and we’re a new school spot,” says Kisner. Pricing has been a consistent concern. “Are people gonna pay $7 for a grilled cheese, or are they gonna laugh at that?” Alongside their $3 bottomless coffee, Currency Exchange offers a $1, eight ounce cup to go.  The first day of the store’s soft opening last June was geared toward Washington Park residents; Kisner says they flyered a five block radius, propped the door open, and offered free coffee. The staff is largely black and mostly local—Kisner commutes from the North Side, but her hires are mostly from Washington Park, South Shore, or near Gates’s Dorchester Projects.

Like Greenline, Currency Exchange imagines its neighborhood transformed. As Kisner puts it, “We kind of plopped ourselves down on this abandoned block.” Those storefronts near Currency Exchange that aren’t vacant hold Gates-driven arts-development projects at various stages of completion. The café is part of a constellation of businesses-to-be that foreshadows a very different stretch of Garfield Boulevard. Greenline, for its part, hopes to bring commerce back to 61st Street, their shop acting as an unofficial incubator to Sunshine Ministry’s official one. But in the meantime both cafés, not yet a year old, have the blocks that they do, and their own space as their canvasses.

“Everything is handcrafted here, and intentional,” says Kisner. It’s not just the tabletops: the rest—from the café’s fusion (southern and Mexican) menu, to their table service, to their $1 coffee—feels intentional too. The menu says that the café knows where it is (“Soul food, comfort food,” says Kisner). The table service says that they are committed to an elevated experience in a neighborhood with few restaurants.

And the eight ounce coffee? “People take advantage of it or they don’t. We don’t make any money on the dollar coffee, we might even lose a few cents. But it was about having that neighborhood service,” says Kisner.

I’ve worked at the same campus coffee shop for three years. Tucked into the basement of the UofC’s Divinity School, it’s a lot of things: a place where physicists come to drink espresso, a shop that slows so much in the summer months that customers can linger at the counter, a long-time seller of dollar coffee. When I ask Greg Chatterley, my boss, about the things he thinks a coffee shop can be, he echoes the ideas of Czuprinski, Kisner, and Hamernick about community.

“I think it can get a little idealistic,” he says, “but there’s a precedent for it—I think it’s something that’s possible to achieve.” But he qualifies: “You have to do a lot of different kinds of work to make a coffee shop into that.  It’s not something that happens organically. Otherwise, it’s just another luxury good.”

The space behind the counter at Bow Truss looks like the workshop of an impeccably neat mad scientist, and in a way, it is. Bow Truss is nerd coffee; as Czuprinski explains it, the company began when owner Phil Tadros asked Chicago-area professionals what their ideal coffee company might look like, and then let them run with it.

Today, the company is a roaster popular enough that Czuprinski says they’re relocating their roasting drum in favor of a model twice as large. “The demand has just skyrocketed so hard that our roastmaster can barely keep up,” he says. The larger drum will also support three new locations set to open this year, each in a different Chicago neighborhood. This is a roaster with fans, buyers, and momentum. “You kind of let the product speak for itself,” Czuprinski says.

My biggest requirements for coffee are that it be hot and in front of me, but even I can tell that Bow Truss’s basic eight ounce drip is something special. At a shop that sells pour-overs, drip isn’t even the good stuff, but this is: delicious, complicated, potentially habit forming. Can you get it for a dollar? Nobody in the shop is sure. Though various outlets reported the pricing shift, Tadros’s announcement didn’t come with clear guidelines. Czuprinski says he gave the special to anybody who asked, and charged regulars who came in for their $2.50 cup a dollar instead. The lower price was never advertised.

As for the space, the lines are clean; the minimal seating and tables are mismatched, but with an eye to continuity. There are no bathrooms, and the original shops (in River North and Lakeview) didn’t have Wi-Fi. Czuprinski says it’s an in-and-out model: “There are so many artists and young professionals in the neighborhood that want good coffee. However, they don’t need to be at our shop all day. They have their own studios, they have their own gigs that they need to get to, they have their own places that they need to be.”

But exchange is still part of Bow Truss’s vision. In the window sits a small communal table, the kind that would encourage getting cozy with your fellow patrons. “He doesn’t want people sitting all day,” Czuprinski says of Tadros, “and he also doesn’t want people just looking on their phones, on their laptops—he wants people to sit around and have a conversation with somebody else.” So, plan your war, but do it before the coffee runs its course.

What should a coffee shop be? Greenline, Currency Exchange, and Bow Truss have built very different spaces: a business working to prove its community is a good investment, another working on a community-to-be, and a showroom for coffee that’s better than everyone else’s. In Greenline, I interviewed Hamernick over the register, stepping aside every few minutes for customers. Parents and kids came in for smoothies, a teen slipped behind the counter for his paycheck. From Currency Exchange, Kisner put the phone down occasionally to orchestrate the private event that would have the shop closed all day; when we’d set up the call, the café was readying for an after-hours birthday party, balloons and favors already strewn.

Czuprinski and I talk early one afternoon, long after the shop’s morning rush. His co-worker buzzes around, keeping everything sharp. This is one of the things Czuprinski likes about the Pilsen location: it’s slow, you can have a conversation. The shop is immaculate, and there are no interruptions. We have the place to ourselves.

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