W alk inside the Back of the Yards Coffeehouse and Roastery on Hoyne Avenue just south of 47th Street and you'll find a tribute to one of Chicago's most historic and yet most underrated neighborhoods. Along the back wall of the cafe, a string frame in the shape of the four major freight-rail lines running through the neighborhood features black-and-white photos by Ricardo Cervantes, who teaches art at Lara Academy, a neighborhood elementary school.
Sandwiches are named after local heroes, from meatpacking muckraker Upton Sinclair—who gets the vegan sandwich—to Sister Angie Kolacinski, longtime director of youth programs at Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. Her sandwich, the Angie K grilled cheese, mixes chihuahua and cheddar. "She's from Wisconsin, and she's with the Mexicans," explains the cafe's co-owner, Jesse Iñiguez, 36, who grew up in the parish.
The cafe has already played host to Tiny Desk-style concerts that pair local musicians with powerhouse acts, from the Chicago Sinfonietta to members of the Grammy-nominated Mexican folk music band Sones de México.
Iñiguez and his business partner, 30-year-old Mayra Hernandez, opened the cafe last May, intending it to be part of the marketing strategy for the Back of the Yards Coffee Co., their coffee-roasting business, which launched in November 2016. The cafe serves as the public face of their larger vision: a socially and environmentally responsible coffee company that creates local jobs while promoting the arts and culture of the neighborhood where they grew up.
They got press. But more to their surprise, the cafe has been good for their bottom line too. "We hit our break-even point the first week it opened," says Iñiguez. They credit their location next door to Back of the Yards College Prep for bringing in business.
- Jamie Ramsay
Already, they've created eight jobs, with more on the way when they open a roasting facility, hopefully at the end of March. Currently, they're working with a partner (who prefers not to be named) to roast beans while they secure a site for their own facility.
Growing up in Back of the Yards, neither Iñiguez nor Hernandez had ever heard of artisan coffee. "My experience with coffee was Folgers or Nescafé at night," says Iñiguez. Inspired by coffee culture as a college student, he later opened a cafe in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, only to see it tank due to the recession. "I didn't have the heart to do it again."
But destiny, in the form of Hernandez's passion for coffee, intervened. She couldn't afford to go out for fancy coffee, so she started experimenting with cold brews at home. "I called Jesse to come try some, and he loved it," she recalls. While Hernandez started selling her cold brew at events like the CumbiaSazo! dance party to pay rent, Iñiguez met a neighbor from a coffee-growing family in Chiapas, Mexico. She brought them sample beans that turned out to be very high quality. "We knew we had something," he says now.
They began selling the beans wholesale online and at pop-ups. That side of the business has been booming. They recently hired two new salespeople to manage accounts with coffee shops like Currency Exchange in Washington Park and Sanctuary Cafe in Hyde Park. Lightning struck again when Iñiguez found another helpful local connection, this time to someone with a small space suitable for a cafe.
Roasting their own beans is the next frontier. Eduardo Rodriguez, a 19-year-old graduate of the highly respected culinary program at Richards High School and a former student at Washburne Culinary Institute, is set to become their master coffee roaster. Top salaries in the field hit six figures. "He'll make more money than us," says Iñiguez.
Rodriguez, like most of the employees, is young and from an immigrant family. Making the switch from cooking to coffee hasn't fazed him. He's learning from books and YouTube videos. "Roasting coffee beans and roasting a steak are kind of similar," he observes. "I always like trying new things, especially when it comes to food and drink. It's a great way to expand your palate. Just hanging around here made me appreciate a good cup of coffee."
The rest of the team shares Rodriguez's enthusiasm. "Everybody's young and everybody's still learning, but we're all learning together," says Hernandez.
Hernandez and Iñiguez are also still learning. Back of the Yards Coffee Co. sets aside one dollar of every bag sold of its signature medium-roast 47th Street Blend toward grants to neighborhood nonprofits. After donating $500 to the neighborhood's after-school mariachi program where they first met about 18 years ago, the partners sat down with neighborhood leaders involved in the Peace and Education Coalition of Back of the Yards to develop an application process for future seed grants.
- Jamie Ramsay
"Moving forward, we want to set up a process with the community about where the money goes," says Iñiguez.
While the cafe's clientele mostly comes from the neighborhood or surrounding areas, the owners aren't shy about their desire to encourage outsiders to visit and spend money. According to a 2010 analysis sponsored by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago, a nonprofit that provides development financing and technical support to underserved communities, more than $52 million in retail spending left Back of the Yards for other neighborhoods that year.
Iñiguez and Hernandez would like to help bring that number down. "If we could even keep 2 percent of that [retail] in the neighborhood and maybe bring some income in from outside, that would be amazing," Iñiguez says.
Bringing in coffee customers would also be good for the neighborhood. "We want people to come see Back of the Yards is not that scary, daunting place you see in the news," says Hernandez.
They're beginning to make some headway. Travelers staying at Midway Airport hotels have come, says Iñiguez, "because we're the only coffee shop a reasonable distance from the airport."
Still, the majority of their customers are their friends, family, and neighbors. Before the cafe opened, some people questioned whether working-class Mexicans would drink good coffee. Hernandez now has a ready answer: "They do. Lots of it." v