Empty Cup: How Small Coffee Shops Are Drying Up
Corporate chains serve Des Plaines residents their morning joe, small local houses have vanished.
The recession has affected American life in major ways including where we live and how we work. But it has affected us in more subtle ways, too, and one is right under most of our noses every day.
Shifts in national markets have dripped all the way down to our coffee cups. A quick survey revealed there is currently not one small, mom-and-pop-sized coffee house in Des Plaines. Some national chain stores are doing business here and there is an independently run coffee stand in the train depot, but that is all.
Des Plaines is not alone. Surrounding suburbs appear similar. Some big names – no little guys.
One small coffee shop, Super Cup Coffee in Morton Grove, is hanging on. Owner Bill Wegner said the recession has made the business, which was already tough to make profitable, nearly impossible.
“I’m part of a dying breed,” Wegner said.
The value of coffee houses to communities goes beyond a tasty brew, according to Wegner. They are places for people to congregate. Everyone from sanitation workers and librarians to unemployed people and the mayor visit Super Cup Coffee weekly.
“If you want to know what’s going on in this town, you can come here,” Wegner said.
In addition to changes in where people drink coffee, recent years have brought changes to what types of coffee they drink, according to Joseph Derupo, director of communications for the National Coffee Association, an industry-wide trade association based in New York.
The association conducts annual studies that track coffee-drinking habits. The amount of people that drink coffee out of the home went from 36 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2010.
At the same time, Derupo said more people are drinking gourmet coffee as opposed to the traditional type. Grocery stores currently offer more gourmet brands than ever before.
Although fewer people are going out for coffee, more people are drinking gourmet. However, people’s perception of their coffee-drinking habits seems to be unaffected by the recession.
Derupo said 84 percent of respondents said their coffee consumption was unaffected by the recession in 2010.
Whether we realize it or not, what we drink and where we drink has changed--and it’s not just small coffee houses that have gone dark.
Flower Art Studio, 1519 Market St., at Metropolitan Square in downtown Des Plaines, is surrounded by empty retail space. Within a one square block around the business in the southeast corner of the development, roughly half of the storefronts are vacant.
Owner Krystyna Swiderski said she likes the spot because there are some anchor stores and decent foot traffic but she hasn’t seen any new businesses come in around her since she opened a year ago. At the same time, the expenses associated with running her small business have not changed either.
“You have to sell a lot of roses to pay your rent,” Swiderski said.
Downtown Des Plaines today
At the end of 2010, the city hired a new director of community and economic development, Michael Bartholomew, and eliminated the previous community and economic development coordinator position.
Bartholomew said because he has only recently started working here, he did not have Des Plaines’ retail vacancy rate available. However, he said there’s tremendous potential in Des Plaines because of the population density.
“For any successful business, whether it’s a coffee shop or a dry cleaner or whatever it is, a key to that is the people that frequent the businesses,” Bartholomew said. “And we seem to have the main ingredient here.”
Several small coffee houses have opened and closed in Des Plaines in the last few years. The last one to close, Sweet Remembrance Café on Lee Street, was open until about the middle of 2010.
Theater sets the stage
Barbara Ryan, executive director of the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce, thinks the Des Plaines Theatre renovation will have a positive impact on downtown businesses and could make a small business such as a coffee shop more viable.
“I think the theater is going to be key to bringing more people downtown,” Ryan said. “We have a beautiful downtown. It has been redone; they’ve done a lot with street-scaping, Metropolitan Square is very attractive. But I think what’s been missing is a bigger reason to draw people there and then keep them there. I do think the theater is going to do that.”
Ryan said oftentimes businesses such as coffee houses and ice cream shops are secondary destinations for consumers, and primary destinations are needed to attract enough foot traffic.
Gay Miezin, the Stage One Productionsdevelopment manager and producer who is overseeing the renovation, has plans to open a small cafe in the lobby of the theater, Music Box Café, which will serve a variety of snacks and beverages including coffee.
Miezin is designing the cafe to coordinate with the period look of the old theater, and hopes to have a juke box, popcorn wagon, penny candy and an old phone booth.
Ald. Rosemary Argus (8th), chairman of the community development committee, has lived in Des Plaines for 39 years, and she’s going into her 10th year of public service. She enjoys the character that small businesses bring to the community, and said they become destination businesses because they offer something different.
People don’t have a reason to come to Des Plaines to go to Starbucks if they have a Starbucks in their town too.
“I think franchise businesses are fine, but I think at a lot of the mom-and-pop stores it’s much more personalized,” Argus said. "I think they’re fun and nice.”