BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With memories of coffee beans growing on the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, where I visited recently, I dropped into Colectivo in Logan Square. Named for the bustling little buses that ferry people around Latin America, the four-month-old café in Chicago’s hottest neighborhood actually got its start 25 years ago in Milwaukee and has been a leading coffee roaster ever since with beans from not only Chiapas but as far away as Papua, New Guinea.
We decided to talk with coffee experts, both from Colectivo and others planning to make their dream of creating a coffee house a reality.
We learned from Wes Thornburgh, who plans to found his own coffee shop in the Chicagoland area soon, that coffee houses have been around for a long time:
“The oldest club in London can trace its roots to a coffee shop. The founding members used to meet in a coffee shop. In 1693 they decided they wanted to meet in their own place, so they hired the proprietor of the coffee shop, Francesco Bianco, to run their club. They Anglicized his name and then named the club after him: White’s.
“Coffee is an affordable luxury. I think today people are more informed and more demanding about food than ever before and coffee is a part of that.”
After noting one review we saw that pined, “I wish I could live here” about Colectivo in Logan Square, we talked with Brand and Marketing Vice President, Scott Schwebel, about new trends in coffee (and its shops). A resident of Milwaukee, Scott visits all 16 Colectivos in Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago each week after dropping his children off at school. He stops at a Colectivo for one cup of coffee at 7:30 am, but may taste a variety later in the day.
“You can’t minimize the pioneering work that Starbucks did. Now Colectivos and other cafes are becoming offices as well as meeting spots for young professionals in Logan Square, whatever their gigs are, and people demand excellence and individuality in their coffee—a traceability of their coffee and a support of local neighborhoods.
“We love the diverse experience Logan Square offers as a neighborhood. Café locations are not chosen from a formulaic approach. We pursue based on personal feel and our vision of the opportunity in front of us.
“We are at our best when we build relationships with our customers and become a daily amenity in the neighborhood. Our cafes are intentionally designed to be gathering places for all—if you roll up on a skateboard or in a Benz, with a stroller or a laptop, we have exceptional coffee and products to offer without being elitist. We have always made our business accessible to a wide range of clientele.”
Logan Square’s Colectivo offers open mike evenings for poets, comedians, and entertainers, as well as variety of fresh baked goods delivered daily from their Wisconsin commissary, smoothies, sparkling drinks, and delicious food featuring Wisconsin’s best, including Door County cherries and German sausages. In Milwaukee Colectivo has had long partnerships with local theaters and the Florentine Opera. Backroom events are offered for all ages.
“As a mission-driven organization, we have always run or built our businesses with strong community engagement. Whether we are a presence—if we are helping shine a light on work that might not otherwise have a chance to be seen—we do it because we believe it’s important in the broader pursuit, supporting or hosting events to drive a dynamic café culture and brand.”
Talking with Wes as he and his partners put together their coffee shop plan, we learned that he has been a coffee taster:
“The coffee people actually call them ‘cuppings’ to differentiate them from wine tastings. Coffees are just as different as wine, for many of the same reasons such as region and how it is roasted. For example, some roasters have their own secret techniques to smooth out the bitterness. Other roasters embrace the bitterness. Coffee tastings are generally for people who have a deep knowledge and passion for coffee, often people in the industry.
“From a business perspective, I used to work in convertible bonds. No one wants convertible bonds anymore, but as long as people have to get up in the morning to go to work, they want coffee.”
Cynthia Moore, one of his business partners, added:
“I think that the reason people need a coffee shop is because they are looking for a good cup of coffee to start their day. In business it’s a great way to get out of the office for a meeting that doesn’t require the full amount of time of a lunch or dinner event.
“Cafes are a great way for friends to get together that’s different from meeting in a bar and unlike a restaurant, you can stay and do some work in most coffee houses. They will have WiFi and are places you can stay and do some work and not feel so isolated, yet it’s quiet enough to get work done. And unlike a library, food and drink are encouraged.
“Coffee can be farmed in a very eco-friendly manner that helps the rainforests. Coffee production offers its employees an alternative way to make their own way is something a lot of people like to support. A truly great cup of coffee has a wonderful aroma, no burnt aftertaste, and isn’t watered down. It is like wine in that there can be many varieties and many flavors, which makes drinking coffee an adventure.”
Colectivo plans to have five cafes in the Chicago area, including its current Lincoln Park and Lincoln Square locations, with Andersonville and Evanston under consideration. Most offer outdoor tables with fire pits.
Wes and partners say that they are looking for a location that fits their own tastes. He described it as a place they themselves would go:
“We would like something light and modern but still warm and comfortable. The ideal neighborhood would be something with high information consumers who are demanding when it comes to food and coffee and the impact design has on their experience.
They don’t necessarily need to be a high-income crowd because premium coffee is an affordable luxury.”
Or as Scott says, a “simple delight.”