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
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.
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
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 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.
“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