2020 was slated to be a good year for Metric Coffee; 2019 had been the best year yet for the independent roastery co-founded in a garage six years prior by Xavier Alexander, a former roasting manager at industry behemoth Intelligentsia Coffee, and Darko Arandjelovic, the founder of Caffe Streets, an always-bustling and hip Wicker Park coffee shop.
What happens next is now a familiar story: a global pandemic, an extended statewide stay-at-home order, and shuttered cafes, bars, and dining rooms across Chicago. Alexander says he began to panic. His remaining wholesale orders were being canceled left and right. “We’re a small, employee-owned, local company,” he says about Metric, which continues to sell takeout coffee (and now doughnuts) inside a stall attached to its West Town roasting facility. “We don’t have a plan B. We don’t have any banks to default to, or any investors to ask. We have to pivot right away and figure out how to focus on what is tangible and what we can control.”
Chicago is home to dozens of coffee roasters, from Dark Matter, to Ipsento, to Kusanya, to Sparrow. Larger companies include Intelligentsia and Stewarts Coffee. Just as businesses in all corners of the hospitality industry pause or alter operations for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time, Chicago’s indie coffee roasters are working quickly to rearrange priorities and keep their businesses alive, racing to predict what post-virus coffee culture and consumption might look like. Several, including Metric, have seen comparable trends — some ominous, others more promising. For now, owners say they’re cautiously optimistic about the immediate future, but they’re reluctant to project too far. That includes figuring out how the city will handle outdoor dining. Metric has a sidewalk patio on a quiet stretch of Fulton Street, seemingly fit to handle social distancing. Coffee shop patrons are also known to linger, which is a worry for public health officials concerned about the threat of prolonged exposure to germs.
“My approach all along has been day-by-day,” says Dan Miracle, COO of Avondale roastery Metropolis Coffee Company, which also runs an Edgewater cafe that’s temporarily closed. “We want to be as prepared as we can be, but we’re also not making any firm decisions until we have more information — there is so much that’s unknown.”
The wholesale orders were the first to go — as public spaces emptied in March and conferences, festivals, and parties canceled, roasters saw most of their business vanish nearly overnight. Miracle estimated that wholesale constituted 75 percent of Metropolis’s revenue, in keeping with other local specialty roasters. “Most of my business is wholesaling,” says Josh Millman, founder and owner of Passion House Coffee Roasters. “We do probably 70-percent wholesale, 30-percent retail. So basically we lost 90-something percent of our wholesale customers. Restaurants, hotel, cafes, bakeries, offices — you name it.”
Passion House, founded in 2011, operates coffee shops in Logan Square, on Goose Island, and formerly at food hall Politan Row. The company closed them when the stay-at-home order was issued, but recently reopened the Logan Square cafe for takeout, with Goose Island reopening June 1. Passion House has received a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, which Millman says he’s grateful for, but he’s already worried about a lack of transparency on using the loan correctly and what happens to his employees after the eight weeks of payroll ends. Lawmakers hope to amend the PPP to benefit restaurant owners this week. “I just think there’s no clarity — that’s the biggest problem,” he says. “Everyone’s doing something immediate, but there’s no planning, no clarity, no benchmarks. There’s such bad leadership, obviously, from the very top down. If you ask anyone in the financial industry, if you ask bankers, ‘How do you use the PPP money?’ ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘How about SBA loans?’ ‘I don’t know.’”
Jesse Iñiguez of Chicago roastery Back of the Yards Coffee Co. is another critic of PPP who also received a loan. In an op-ed for South Side Weekly, he expressed his frustration during the early days of loan distribution, back in late April as millions of dollars went to national chains like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House (Facing public pushback, both companies returned the money). The loan he received allowed him to reopen his South Side cafe for takeout and delivery for the time being, but he fears for neighboring mom-and-pop owners who don’t have the resources or know-how to access these funds. “The fact remains that larger corporations have the staffing to apply for these funds,” he says. “We were able to apply because I stopped everything else I was doing, but it was very daunting… I think there’s a lot of small businesses that are not going to survive this.”
On top of his concerns for his fellow small business owners, he’s also worried about residents of the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the Southwest Side. The purpose of the company isn’t just to sell beans and lattes — Iñiguez opened with the goal of establishing a community hub where residents could access speciality coffee in a neighborhood with limited coffee options. Closing that cafe space affects more than just the business, he says. When he first opened, a primary concern was creating a friendly environment for young neighborhood residents — something he says adults can take for granted. “In Back of the Yards, safe spaces of gathering, particularly for young people, are very rare,” he says. “I’m no longer a teenager, I have access to other spaces across the city — a gym, even a bar, to meet with people and socialize. Unfortunately, young people in our community don’t really have that… the frustrating part now is that it’s not [a safe place] anymore, at least for the foreseeable future.”
Local roasters are holding onto hope that the demand for coffee will continue. They say it’s a matter of meeting coffee drinkers where they are — and for now, that’s at home
“We started seeing our online orders increase dramatically in a way we’ve never seen before,” Millman says. Before the pandemic, only a few of his neighbors would come in to buy coffee, he notes. “But when this all happened, the whole neighborhood started buying coffee from me. It’s not enough to sustain us, but it keeps money coming in.”
He also see the otherwise unwelcome change as a chance to reexamine Passion House’s business practices. Implementing new strategies and procedures for communication and logistics in a matter of weeks has taxed the team, but he believes the company will emerge stronger for it.
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Happy Saturday! ☕️ • • Today is slated to be a beautiful 70 degree day here in Chicago which means; perfect day for a tasty cup of coffee. Our café has plenty of fresh roasted retail, brewed coffee, iced lattes and cold brew to bring a little happiness to your day. Our current shop hours are still 7-1 pm (and now open on Sunday) and as always- thank you for your support and please be safe.
Alexander has also seen an upswing in online orders at Metric, with customers purchasing more items at once. “Throughout this ordeal, not really having all the information or knowing where it would go, I’m glad we trusted our gut and our gut said to be open and to do it safely,” he says. “Thankfully, it’s paid off.” Metric is also donating 100 percent of proceeds from its Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood coffee to support workers at its clients’s restaurants. In a month, it raised $5,000 for restaurants like Lula and Big Star.
As businesses, including coffee shops — Intelligentsia last week reopened its Wicker Park location — in Illinois begin to reopen, roasters remain cautiously optimistic.
“None of us knows what the future holds but I think we are feeling really positive about things,” says Metropolis’s Miracle. “We’re going to keep plugging away and I expect to come out on the other side with a successful business.” It may not look exactly like it did before, he says, “but it will still be great.”