Lincoln Park coffee bar CityGrounds serves up an education with every cup of espresso, asking customers to care as much about how the product was made as they do the taste.
Operating CityGrounds is a second career for owner Steve Chang. A corporate communications specialist, Chang was preparing to move to New York for a public relations job in the finance industry when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. He had roots in Chicago and decided to hit the brakes on the move.
Chang, 36, is committed to educating customers on how to brew, serve and sip the right cup of coffee. An average bag of beans at CityGrounds can run up to an astronomical $22, and Chang wants to make sure his customers know how to pick the right grinder, measure the appropriate amount of coffee, and get the water temperature just so. He said he wants his customers to brew a great-tasting cup of coffee so they see the value of the premium price, starting at $2.75. Blending his passion for coffee with his bottom line is something Chang works on every day.
Chang said he had always been interested in brewing the perfect cup of espresso, so in 2011 he opened the doors to his own shop in the 500 block of West Dickens Avenue in Lincoln Park. The coffee bar was slow to build customer momentum, but Chang said he’s seen a 40 percent increase in sales from 2011 to 2013. The reason? He added wi-fi.
John Notz has been a CityGrounds regular since moving to Chicago two years ago. He’s the chief financial officer of an artisanal food business based in California, but gets his work done at his pop-up office space-–a table inside the Lincoln Park café.
“It’s a great place to get work done…and anyone that just takes their product seriously, I appreciate.” Notz also happens to live around the corner and has been known to have his family stop by the “office” for a visit.
In addition to fostering an inviting atmosphere for freelancers and small business operators, Chang focuses on sourcing specialty roasted beans. He says this is how he tries to set CityGrounds apart from competitors like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.
“By and large people are going to Starbucks for their morning coffee.” He said. “We need to balance what consumers want and how we think coffee should be served.”
“It’s an everyday struggle. You have to earn your customers.” Chang said.
With his unwavering dedication to brewing the perfect cup, Chang said he’s even argued with customers who have been impatient waiting or wanting to load it with cream. Chang wants his customers to enjoy the natural flavors of his espresso. CityGrounds has gone as far as creating its own almond milk blend that Chang says properly enhances the flavors of the coffee. It took the place of a popular soy milk that Chang said ruins the taste of coffee.
To keep costs low, Chang runs a tight operation. He has four staff that alternate shifts at the bar while he wears the owner, manager, public and community relations, sales and accounting hats. He also works behind the counter sometimes, and can brew a cup of coffee while talking on the phone.
Like many restaurants and coffee shops in the city, CityGrounds fell victim to the unseasonably cold winter, with what Chang called “visibly reduced” traffic. With the prospect of warmer weather, Chang is looking forward to the draw of the shop’s street-side patio.