The black-and-white image of the Vee-Jay team that is prominently featured in Overflow Coffee was taken at the label's office in 1959.
The black-and-white image of the Vee-Jay team that is prominently featured in Overflow Coffee was taken at the label's office in 1959. Credit: Angela Burke

All of us have been witness to the slow erasure of a once legendary building. Often these structures appear to have been resuscitated by their inevitable transition into something vapid like a boutique dental office, a pet grooming salon, or a chain restaurant, when really, they’ve entered the Sunken Place. The building at 1449 S. Michigan, once the headquarters of the groundbreaking recording company Vee-Jay Records, had indeed seen its share of dark days; but now it’s home to the not-for-profit Overflow Coffee. For this edifice, the arrival of the coffee shop came with a renovation of its structure and a restoration of its soul.

Overflow Coffee opened on Michigan Avenue in South Loop in early 2021 after a two-year-long renovation, but the cafe isn’t new to the neighborhood. Owned by Entrenuity, a not-for-profit business incubator founded by L. Brian Jenkins with a mission to support Black, Brown, and women entrepreneurs, Overflow thrived for many years in a shared multiuse space on State Street before its lease was terminated in 2019. With little time to relocate, the Overflow team swiftly sought new dwellings that would house Entrenuity’s headquarters, a coworking space, and the coffee shop. “We found this location on 14th and Michigan and I think as a team, we got the consensus that this is something we could grow into and offer things that we couldn’t in the space before,” says Overflow coffee director, Kari Pendleton. “And then we found out the history of this building.”

In the 50s and 60s, Vee-Jay Records founders Vivian Carter and her husband James Bracken were notable fixtures on Record Row, setting up shop at 2129 S. Michigan before relocating to 1449 S. Michigan at the height of the label’s popularity. At the time, Vee-Jay Records was the largest Black-owned record label in the U.S.—before Motown, there was Vee-Jay. The opening line of a 1961 profile in Ebony magazine offers insight into the label’s significance: “Among America’s top record manufacturers—the men who know recordings best—Chicago’s hit making Vee-Jay Record Co. is fast becoming the biggest little giant in the industry.” Yet, while much has been written about Chicago’s own Chess Records, the cultural contributions of Vee-Jay Records has largely been overlooked. It’s a story that Pendleton and the team at Overflow are bringing to light.

The meaning of “overflow” has become a mantra of sorts for Pendleton, a Chicago native who grew up in Beverly but spent much of her childhood in Scotland with her parents and siblings. For her, the word puts into context how persistence and Black entrepreneurship—both past and present—exist in this building. “Figuring out that history and realizing there’s always been a legacy of Black-owned businesses here, and that they too had to create their own space because no one could accommodate them,” she says. “And that’s so much of our story. We were unable to be accommodated by an available space. We had to create our own.”

Inside the shop, music plays once again. A melodic mix of classic soul and R&B grooves along with the sibilants of a steaming espresso machine that pumps out locally roasted Metric. Exposed brick with “Overflow Coffee” painted in black sets the backdrop for the seating area, which is open currently. A piano rests near the back wall where a majestic, black-and-white image taken at the label’s office in 1959 of the Vee-Jay team is prominently displayed: Carter and Bracken, their business partner Ewart Abner, and Carter’s brother, Calvin Carter, who was a producer and manager.

“We wanted to do something to honor the history and the space and let people know what this used to be. We want Overflow to have its own presence and tell its own story, but at the same time, we want to give honor to the history that this space does have,” Pendleton says.

The walls of Overflow Coffee pay homage to Vee-Jay Records.Credit: Angela Burke

A feature wall showcasing the label’s record covers designates a comfy lounge area that feels like an Instagram prompt on the surface; but a deeper dig reveals it’s actually an homage to the original aesthetic of the building, which filled its windows with Vee-Jay album covers. They mark a homecoming. “As soon as we found out the history of the space the team started going online and buying stuff. Brian started buying album covers every week if he found something on eBay.” The covers are artifacts that illustrate the range of Vee-Jay’s artists which included: The Beatles, Jerry Butler, the Dells, Betty Everett, Dick Gregory, Jimmy Reed, the Spaniels, and more.

Baked goods are made in-house by Pendleton. She found a knack for baking as a child fully equipped with an Easy-Bake Oven, and now she owns the online bakeshop Bakes by Kari. Through Entrenuity’s program, she’s able to build her business and eventually grow it into a brick-and-mortar bakery of her own. Pastry chef is just one of the many hats Pendleton wears at Overflow. She runs the day-to-day operations and heads up the coffee program, pulling from her extensive background as a barista and manager at cafes overseas and in Chicago (Ipsento, Julius Meinl, Bridge Cafe). For her, baking is about nourishment while coffee is about building connections. “Living in Chicago, a city that’s always moving and very much has the hustlers’ mentality, and being an entrepreneur myself, there’s this feeling of constant motion, and coffee creates a space of pause. While it fuels you to do what you need to do, it also gives you the opportunity to slow down, to connect, and to rest.”

Considering the cultural impact of third places and how they show up for the communities that they serve, it’s befitting that Overflow Coffee would evolve into a harmonious hybrid that’s part coffee shop, museum, and business accelerator. Pendleton says the response to their opening has been overwhelming. Even Calvin Carter’s son has visited and was moved by the tribute paid to his heritage. “Everybody’s been so kind. Someone brought us a plant as a welcome back to the neighborhood gift. The response has been really affirming.”   v