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Chi Lives: in love with the grind

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Arshad "Sony" Javid says he started on caffeine when he was 11 months old. He loves coffee. It fuels him from the moment he gets up, and it remains his obsession seven days a week as he oversees his growing java empire, the Cafe Descartes chain, which includes a new roasting facility and coffeehouse in Rogers Park, five coffee stands on the UIC campus, and one stand at Northeastern Illinois University. Until last month, his pride and joy was his flagship Lincoln Avenue coffee shop, but he closed that location Thanksgiving weekend after waging a two-year battle with the Starbucks across the street.

Javid, who was born in Pakistan to parents who were coffee and tea wholesalers, emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-80s, settling in Seattle, home of his future rival. While a business and philosophy student at the University of Washington, he hung out in a ramshackle coffeehouse called the Last Exit, contemplating where he might fit in in his new world. Learning there was a large Pakistani community in Chicago, he transferred to UIC in 1989 and, while still a student, decided to stake his claim in coffee, selecting the name Cafe Descartes to go with his motto, "I drink therefore I am."

"It was always in my blood to look for a cafe, and it was hard to look for a job because of my accent, maybe my personality, the language, and how I looked," says Javid. "So I decided the only way I was gonna win was if I did something on my own. I came up with the idea of a coffee shop but I didn't have enough capital, so I started my own espresso cart and one thing led to another."

Javid spent two years expanding his operations across the UIC campus before moving into his Lincoln Avenue storefront in 1994. Starbucks rolled in five years later, its deep corporate coffers and brand name threatening to mow Cafe Descartes over.

He stood his ground, taking pride in the fact his cafe's copper-toned decor and giant wall mural stood out from the cookie-cutter design of Starbucks locations. He says that he was drawn to Rogers Park by the diversity of the neighborhood rather than economic troubles. "Rogers Park is the greatest community, and the people who walk into here are happier," says Javid. "Things like that are more important to me than people who just act like they're rushing to their 8 to 5 job. Everyone knows me at UIC and I like that feeling, and I get that here more than in Lincoln Park."

At the Rogers Park facility, which opened in September, Javid roasts beans for retail sale as well as for a roster of 55 restaurants. "I do wholesale price sales of Costa Rican, Ethiopian, Sumatran, Mexican, mocha java, island blend, Chicago blend," he says. "We also have cappuccino, latte, mocha, premium teas, and a fresh minibakery with pastries made on the premises." He's a master of the mix, putting Central American, South American, Indonesian, and African coffees together for his house blends and espressos, which his employees grind for each pull individually, unleashing a potent scent throughout the store.

The heat from the roasters, which can hit 300 degrees, takes a toll on Javid--he drinks massive quantities of water, and sweat perpetually beads on his brow beneath an ever-present beret. But it's worth it, he says. "Coffee is like art--I take it personally."

Javid's taken his success and, motivated by his Muslim faith, given back something to the community that embraced him. He's endowed four scholarships at UIC, offering $2,000 annually to first-generation immigrants who demonstrate financial need, show an entrepreneurial spirit, and are in good academic standing. He and his wife, a lawyer, have adopted the three orphaned children of a family friend, and, in 1991, he founded a school for girls in Khanewal, Pakistan.

Such acts of charity are not just required by Islam, he says, they're needed more urgently than ever now, at a time when misunderstanding of Muslims is growing. Over the last few months, he has tried to combat that prejudice by hosting neighborhood discussions at the Rogers Park cafe, inviting area professors to come talk about Middle Eastern issues and take comments and questions. "I'm living in a very big city, but it's like a small community," he says. "People are very happy to come here, and that makes me happy."

Cafe Descartes is at 1355 W. Lunt (773-262-7860).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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