Coffee a Vehicle for Change at Back of the Yards on Chicago’s South SideFFOL Editor 1
In the mixed residential and industrial South Side Chicago neighborhood Back of the Yards, so named for its proximity to the historic former Union Stock Yards site, two locals see specialty coffee as a means of bringing the diverse population together.
Jesse Iñiguez and Mayra Hernandez, owners of Back of the Yards Coffee Co. and residents of the neighborhood, opened the doors to their cafe last May with walls adorned with images and artworks that celebrate the local community both today and throughout its history.
While one goal for the cafe was to boost visibility for the company’s wholesale roasting business that launched in November 2016, equally important goals include providing a social hub and gathering space, and providing jobs and attracting commerce to the community where the owners grew up — all in an ethically and environmentally sound way that also promotes local arts and culture.
“Back of the Yards has historically been forgotten,” Iñiguez told Daily Coffee News. “It’s split. There’s five different wards within our two-square-mile radius. Politically, it’s fractured; there’s been a lot of disinvestment in the area. We thought that to open up a business, a roasting facility and a coffee shop that would employ people, would provide an economic stimulus to the community.”
Iñiguez said that because the only coffee served the area is by Starbucks and McDonald’s and a lot of what’s brewed in people’s homes is on par with Folgers and Nescafe, winning over the local palate requires some flexibility.
“It’s gonna be a process,” said Iñiguez. “We can’t just come in selling light roasted Yirgacheffe without making something that’s familiar.”
However, not everyone in the neighborhood necessarily prefers McCafe.
“A lot of my neighbors and a lot of my friends, teachers that work in the area, professionals, they drink coffee as well, but they’re not buying it here,” said Iñiguez. “There’s about $400 million in coffee sales being hemorrhaged and leaving the community. A lot of the great coffee houses of Chicago — Intelligentsia, Dark Matter — they’re up in the north side of Chicago. We wanted to set up a coffee shop and coffee business where other companies wouldn’t.”
Currently featuring a house blend and single origins toll-roasted locally by a Chicago-based roasting partner, the new cafe aims to harness some of that commercial opportunity by serving brew and espresso drinks ground by Mazzer grinders, extracted on a Nuova Simonelli Appia espresso machine and at times concocted into specialties that reflect local history and heritage. For example, the shop’s café de olla is inspired by the cinnamon, raw sugar, molasses and Mexican spices mixed with cheap boiled coffee that was Iñiguez’s first experience with the bean.
“We developed a syrup with all the ingredients are found in café de olla, and now we mix it with good coffee,” said Iñiguez. “The flavor is amazing. It’s one of our top sellers, and we’re looking into developing the syrup for retail as well.”
Sandwiches are also reflective of people and place. There’s a vegetarian sandwich named after Upton Sinclair, whose book “The Jungle” not only exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry, but also explored life in Back of the Yards over a century ago. The Angie K grilled cheese combines Wisconsin cheddar and Mexican Chihuahua cheese, in recognition of Sister Angela Kolacinski, who Iñiguez describes as a mentor that descended from Polish immigrants in Wisconsin and now works closely with the Mexican community in Back of the Yards.
A Mexican Chiapas single origin coffee currently in development came to the company through a connection at home. When a local bank downsized and laid off its cleaning staff, Iñiguez and Hernandez hired a friend of a friend to clean their house twice a month, and it turned out the cleaner’s family members in Chiapas are coffee farmers growing surprisingly good coffee. The first shipment should reach Chicago by this June.
“We’re experimenting with them. We helped them put a drying room together for cascara, because that’s something we want to use for our syrups as well,” said Iñiguez, who hopes these and other efforts by the roaster at origin assist in expanding and diversifying the farm’s revenue streams.
BOTY is also providing support for more quality-oriented post-harvest upgrades for partner farms, such as raised drying beds. A group of filmmakers who documented events in Puerto Rico for Vice after the recent Hurricane Maria plans to produce a documentary about the family in Chiapas that could be ready to screen by the end of this year.
Moving forward in Back of the Yards, the Chiapas and other coffees will soon be roasted by the company within an 11,000-square-foot space that will allow for plenty of growth. A Probat P12, custom painted dark blue and emblazoned with the BOTY logo, is on its way, and Eduardo Rodriguez, a 19-year-old former Washburne Culinary Institute student and graduate of the Richards High School culinary program, is on board to take the position of head roaster.
Beyond the art on the walls, the sandwich names and the syrup recipes, Iñiguez also sees coffee itself as a matter of heritage from which the U.S.-based descendants of coffee-cultivating cultures are socioeconomically disconnected.
“In the U.S., our black and brown communities, you don’t see too many coffee houses,” said Iñiguez. “It’s a tradition that comes from our places of origin, but it’s not something that we enjoy here as much. Even in Chicago, a lot of the baristas don’t look like the people that live in Back of the Yards. We want to diversify the industry, and get people to appreciate coffee more in communities that we think could. We’d like to make specialty coffee not as, for lack of a better word, ‘bougie’. I want to make high-quality, specialty coffee more accessible.”
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.