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Intelligentsia Coffee’s CEO Talks About Adjusting to the New Norm

Read, in their own words, how Chicago hospitality leaders are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak

A coffee shop bar and a shelf on the left full of coffee bags.
Intelligentsia’s Broadway cafe.
Marc Much/Eater Chicago

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has announced that Chicago bars and restaurants could reopen for dine-in service as early as late June, as a part of his plan called Restore Illinois. Now in a new phase of crisis management, many local owners of food and drink establishments are working to hammer out plans for the future and ways to navigate a new reality for both workers and customers.

In this regular feature, Eater Chicago will talk to three members of Chicago’s food world, asking them how they’re applying the lessons learned during the pandemic to their businesses now and in the future.

Joel Nickson of Wishbone
Wishbone [Official Photo]

As of March, Joel Nickson and wife Julie have owned and operated popular, homey Southern restaurant Wishbone for 30 years. Nickson closed the restaurant when the stay-at-home order was first issued, but has since reopened for delivery, carryout, and curbside delivery. The couple remained in the West Loop and relocated the restaurant from its original home on West Washington Boulevard in 2018.

“The timing of this was hard for us personally because we were just getting our groove back and people were finding us again. Even when you move six blocks away, when you don’t have a big marketing budget or anything, people thought we were closed, they would drive by [the original location] and see it empty. We were kind of excited — in February we were up and seemed like things were starting to pay off, and then this thing hit, so it was kind of a double whammy...It’s hard to pivot when we’ve been so geared to be a sit-down restaurant. Our strong suit was that we have longtime customers, and my staff. We were kind of a community restaurant, people knew us and we were more about being kind of a busy, bustling neighborhood restaurant....

At the old location, at least I didn’t have debt — I had a little more of a war chest to come back with. We did that with 9/11, we did that in 2008 when [the market] crashed. I’ve been through plenty of downturns. My very first business was a hot dog stand at the beach. I was laughing about that, because Jaws came out and that hurt the business. I was 19 at the time. It’s going to be interesting. I think disasters can create opportunity, but from a restaurant seating point of view, for our type of operation, I’m not seeing a lot of opportunity...I’ve had 30 good years and I wish I had saved more. With the stock market too, our retirement — those things all got cut in half too. But for myself, it’s more about my crew. I’m not saying we’re throwing in the towel, because we’re not, but it’s going to be an uphill battle and I certainly won’t be in a position to bring everybody back or pretend it’s going to be as it was before. We’re going to give it our best shot to try and rethink it and make it work.”

Justin Doggett of Kyoto Black
Kyoto Black [Official Photo]

Justin Doggett is the owner and founder of Kyoto Black, a wholesaler of Kyoto-style cold brew coffee. Doggett opened his first cafe in Edgewater in early April. He is offering his cold brew for pickup, delivery, and through monthly online subscriptions.

“I signed a lease for the new space in December. I was pretty much ready to open in March, and then all of this happened. I was waiting to see if I would be allowed to open. City Hall was closed down for people trying to come in, but I got my application in and finalized a week before they ended in-person appointment. When this was developing, I knew I had to push this is a little bit faster — otherwise, I didn’t know if I would be able to open at all because I didn’t have my license in hand or anything.

I found out that all of my wholesale partners that had been shut down — SoHo House, for example, was the source of a lot of business.... 70 percent of my revenue was gone overnight. Fortunately I had opened my brick and mortar, so that did open another sales channel for me. I don’t have any employees yet, it’s just me, so I didn’t have to lay anyone off. I have friends who have had to lay people off for the firs time in the history of their business. I could be nimble and had the ability to reach people — that would be my only obligation...I know that at the end of the day, I’m very lucky to have a lot of really great, supportive people around me. My only obligation is to make sure I’m a supportive person around someone else. I felt way worse for my wholesale partners than I did for myself. I’m so small, I can still operate. They’re big so they have to be closed, they have all these things to take care of and have to deal with investors. I know a lot of managers care about their staff, not everyone only cares about themselves — it hurts to [lay people off], and I don’t have to do any of that. I feel fortunate to be in a position to make something of this and keep going. I was the mouse after the asteroid strike kind of thing.”

James McLaughlin of Intelligentsia Coffee
Intelligentsia Coffee [Official Photo]

James McLaughlin is the president and CEO of Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, which operates six local shops as well as spots in Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, and Austin, Texas. The company recently reopened a handful of locations for to-go service, including two in Chicago.

“We started to realize this was going to effect us in late February, but in hindsight, it was probably a very naive perspective on how this was going effect us. From a coffee perspective, we were thinking, do we have any issues at the ports with get [coffee] in the country. Manufacturers in Italy — are they gong to be able to ship products? Once the news started hitting us that people were getting sick, everything happened so, so quickly. It was a really intense two weeks of trying to make the right decisions for our employees and for communities where we operate. There really is not playbook here. With the information you have, you’re trying to make best decisions you can. Overall, I’m pretty proud of the decisions we made — I think we were really early in eliminating people’s personal cups. We pulled our condiment bar behind our bar, so it was our team that was handling that stuff. It was a series of little decisions we were making, for like every decision we made and worked through, it felt like there was new information every two hours...

It’s been hard, and we’ve made a lot of really tough decisions in the last month and a half that I don’t think anyone in the hospitality industry thought they would ever have to make. We’re all adjusting to a new norm. One of the great things about our company is that we’re fairly small and nimble — if something works or doesn’t work, we can pivot in two or three days. I think that gives us an advantage.”

Wishbone

161 N. Jefferson Street, Chicago, IL 60661 Visit Website

Intelligentsia Coffee

53 E Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60601 312 920 9332

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