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One Shop Closes, a New One's Doing Fine: Elmhurst's a Competitive Coffee Market

Elmhurst coffee shops percolate through economic jolts.

The writing was literally on the wall last month at Caribou Coffee's York Road and North Avenue location.

Before shutting its doors Oct. 27, some customers expressed their sadness by writing about their fond memories of the past five years. The closing was a shock to many.

“All the regulars who I talked to every morning are really sad about it,” said Kaitlyn Brebner, shift supervisor. “A lot of us are really sad. Everyone who works here is close-knit. We hang outside of work and we talk all the time. We all get along very well.”

The Minneapolis-based company closed its Elmhurst location because it “was not making a high enough profit,” Brebner said, along with other factors, such as the store’s nearby competition and its location.

“We’re in an odd place,” she said. “Sometimes, the parking lot’s full, so people are not able to get in here and get their coffee. We also don’t have a sign on the side. A lot of people were saying that the store should advertise on the corner so people on North Avenue could see it.”

She said the staff is being relocated to other Caribou locations. What will come into the space is not yet known, Cathy Maloney of Findzall Marketing said by email. She said she contacted the landlord of the former Caribou, who told her he has not yet leased the space.

Brebner said she will miss her customers.

“It was wonderful working at the Elmhurst store,” she said. “I really enjoyed it and it’s sad that it’s closing, but it happens.”

Expanding Into New Territory

As Caribou said its good-byes, , a homegrown coffeehouse with a dedicated following, forged ahead with its second location at 111 E. First St. The space was previously occupied by independent coffeehouses Chocolate Moon and First Cup.

Elijah’s hit the Elmhurst scene four years ago with its first location at 136 W. Vallette St. The store is a family-run business operated by co-owners Laura Giese, her daughter Andrea D’Imperio and her husband, David D’Imperio. Giese, who previously worked as a director of marketing for a Chicago-based bank, handles marketing, bookkeeping and public relations. David is the general manager and Andrea is responsible for decorating the stores, employee training and scheduling and maintaining human resources department.

According to its website, the store was named after Elijah, an Old Testament prophet who promoted reconciliation between Israel and God while Queen Jezebel and King Ahab encouraged idol worship. Elijah was in great danger and sought sanctuary. Giese explained that the store’s philosophy is to promote a modern-day sanctuary, complete with the comforts of home—couches and tables, local art on the walls and no televisions.

Both the Vallette and Park locations offer coffee roasted by an Arizona purveyor, fresh pastries and pre-made sandwiches, scones, gluten-free muffins and Republic of Tea products.

Giese, who also supervises the Vallette location, said the business maintains a loyal following by treating people right and providing a quality product.

“The city of Elmhurst has been really good to us,” Giese said. “I always say that there’s not a bad customer in Elmhurst. I love each and every one of our customers.”

The business was born from a thought Giese had in 2004. With her four grown children out of her home, she had “teenage withdrawal.” She wondered where teenagers like to hang out and thought of coffee shops. Andrea, who was about to graduate with a music degree from Ferris State in Michigan, already had experience starting such a business and was interested. Giese’s husband gave financial assistance.

Giese said it took three years to find a suitable location. During this time Andrea married David, who had experience managing Baker’s Square and McDonald’s locations. They found the site vacated by the former Boba Teaz. Though Giese worked full-time, she was behind the scenes doing the marketing and bookkeeping. They finally opened in 2007.

The recession didn’t harm the new business.

"People in the industry say that if you're a coffee drinker, you're going to drink coffee no matter what the economic climate is,” she said. “That goes in our favor. I also think that Elmhurst may not have been as hard hit by the recession as some other areas. The economy also may not have affected us as much because our product is not very expensive, so a lot of people can come in who might not (be able) to afford more expensive food or drinks.”

Two Down, One to Go?

Giese said the business plan was to open three shops, one for each of them. When the D’Imperios learned that First Cup closed in July, they jumped at the chance to take the space. Giese knew of the heavily caffeinated competition in Elmhurst’s downtown area.

“I was hesitant (to move into the area),” she said. “Our customers’ opinions are really important to us. As soon as we started talking to people, they were saying ‘That’s a great idea.’ So we decided to check into (the First Cup location). The landlord here was bound and determined to keep this space as coffee shop. We figured at that point that it would be either having to deal with another competitor or coming here and doing it ourselves.”

Giese isn’t worried about similar places getting a piece of the action. To her, it’s the people’s choice.

“I kind of view it as people will go where they like it the most,” she said. “That’s what the free market system is about. If people like us, they’ll come to us. If people like That Coffee Shop, or wherever, they’ll go there."

Her secret for success is working 15 hours a day and usually being on call to handle any situation.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s about putting the customer first and making sure you have quality ingredients,” Giese said. “We try to look at the bottom line because obviously we have to stay in business, but if it comes down to a question of price or quality, it’s going to be quality.”

The new store is getting a good response from downtown patrons, thanks to word of mouth, Facebook and some coupons.

“God has blessed us greatly. We’ve had a way stronger start than I ever imagined," she said, adding that David and Andrea have been supervising the First Street space exclusively. "I think this store will ultimately will end up bringing bigger traffic than our Vallette store.”

Attracting Commuters

Just across the tracks and down the street at 124 W. Park Ave., owner Shelley Wagner knows what her customers want throughout the day.

The morning commuters desire a strong black cup of coffee. When afternoon and evening visitors disembark from the train, they want fancy bar drinks, like lattes, hot chocolate, smoothies and Italian sodas made with San Pellegrino water and flavored syrups. She uses Metropolis Brand coffee roasted in Chicago.

It’s a routine she’s developed since opening her business in April 2010. Being across from the train station, Wagner gets traffic from a built-in clientele, some of whom come in twice a day.

Wagner, an Elmhurst resident, was familiar with this line of work since she was a Starbucks shift manager. The space was formerly an art gallery run by Karen Solem. She called her store “That” Coffee Shop when in the midst of construction, she envisioned commuters telling people “to meet me at that coffee shop.”

Despite the bad economy, Wagner opened her store. 

“I saw an opportunity to be in a beautiful building which was a good location since it was right across from the train station,” she said.

It helped working with Solem, who wanted to sublet the space. Wagner saved on rent money while Solem continued her photo studio in back. By having the store, Wagner displays different artwork available for sale every week from local artists commissioned by Solem.

Grateful for the business, Wagner has noticed that the depressed economy brings about financial drawbacks, such as paying higher credit card and fuel fees. To retain her customer base, she’s developed a loyalty program, where rewards include a free bag of coffee after 35 visits.

“Credit card fees have gone up tremendously (since) I have started this business," she said. "Supplies have gone up a lot. I’m getting charged fuel surcharges for delivery for pastries. (In the past), I wasn’t getting gas tacked on to deliveries. Appliance companies are now even charging up to $30 or $40 fuel surcharge to deliver a refrigerator. It’s insane with the little things that are happening that people don’t see.”

Wagner tries not to increase her coffee prices to offset her loss.

“Coffee went up more than a third in price since I opened,” she said. “I’ve increased my prices one time in 18 months and it was 15 cents per item.”

Competition, especially from other independent coffeehouses and big players, can be healthy but also poses a threat, she said.

“I can’t compete with Starbucks because it’s a brand,” she said. “You either like Starbucks or you don’t.”

Wagner noticed that Elijah’s “has a very good following” because of the store already being established at the south side of town.

Wagner said that after 18 months, she's still not making a profit.

“I employ people and I work long hours; I can’t do it by myself," she said. "I have a wonderful staff. Someday, I will be able to get a check.”

She had considered opening another location, but those plans are on hold for now.

“Who knows? The economy might just turn around,” she said.

Jim Harrelson November 16, 2011 at 06:53 PM
I think a more accurate title for your article might be 'one step forward, two steps back: Elmhurst's saturated coffee market', as you forgot to mention that Cafe Amano's morning coffee business also closed. if I were "that coffee shop's" proprietor, I wouldn't hold my breath on opening a new store. And as far as elijah's is concerned, don't overestimate your "business/marketing" acumen: you've got three things going for you on First street: location, location, location; (as even the coffee shop run by the "coffee nazi" sold tons of coffee at that location).
Joy November 16, 2011 at 08:46 PM
I love Elijah's . I just switched offices and I was near the location on Vallette. I was thrilled that they were opening on First right next to my new office. Thank goodness that David and the staff are way friendlier than the coffee "nazi". LOL Being a Realtor we are lucky that we a thriving downtown. I am excited about the new florist opening where the magic shop was. I can't wait to walk over to the spice shop and I am on a diet from all my testing at the new "Bleeding Heart" bakery. It's a shame that the Boucherie closed. Now that there is more traffic heading in that direction with the bakery it may have found a following. Yes, there are empty stores but far less than in Glen Ellyn and Hinsdale. Over all we are pretty lucky.

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