Woodlawn coffee shop builds community on the Old Transit Corridor

By Igor Studenkov For Chronicle Media

A Robust Coffee Lounge beverage cup. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

These days, Chicago South Side’s Woodlawn neighborhood is home to several coffee shops — but Robust Coffee Lounge was the first.

It opened in 2010 at 6300 S. Woodlawn Avenue, on the southwest corner of the intersection of Woodlawn Avenue and 63rd Street, near the former site of one the Chicago “L” system’s oldest stations.

For more than 50 years, that stretch has been trying to attract residential and commercial development — to mixed success. And while the owners of Robust Coffee Lounge weren’t sure whether what they did made any difference one way or another, they have been able to stay in business and attract a loyal customer base. By their own account, even they weren’t entirely sure how they were able to make it happen, but they were glad that they did.

The stretch of 63rd Street that Robust Coffee Lounge is located at was once beneath Chicago’s very first elevated “L” line. The South Side Elevated Line originally opened in 1892 between Congress Street and Pershing Road. Wanting to capitalize on the 1893 World Colombian Exposition, which was held at and around Jackson Park, the line made its way south down the alleys and east along 63rd Street, reaching Jackson Park by May 12, 1893 — 12 days after the fair opened. While the line never had a station over Robust Coffee Lounge’s location, the University Park station opened on April 23, 1893 only one block to the west.

Over the next few decades, 63rd Street became one of the city’s major shopping strips. But the Great Depression took its toll. In the 1940s-1960s, Woodlawn’s population shifted from majority-white to majority black, and many businesses that catered to former residents closed or moved. Not all of the businesses left — most notably, Daley’s Restaurant, which is located a few blocks farther west, near the intersection of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, has been around since 1892. But overall, the 63rd Street corridor struggled to attract the kind of businesses it used to have, and the neighborhood economy declined with it.

Robust Coffee Lounge operates out of a former industrial building that was renovated into a mixed-use loft in 2008. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

Through it all, the original “L” line continued running, eventually becoming part of the Green Line. But in 1982, service was cut back to University Avenue station. In 1994, the Chicago Transit Authority closed the entire section as part of the two-year Green Line renovation. As Chicago Tribune reported at the time, some Woodlawn residents and community leaders argued that the portion of the line east of Cottage Grove should be demolished, arguing that it creates train noise, darkens the street underneath and “contributes to a perception of crime and a lack of security.” But others argued that the service should not only be kept, but restored as far east as Dorchester, near the 63rd Street Metra Electric/South Shore Line station. The tracks weren’t impeding development, they argued — in fact, having the “L” would encourage development and reduce congestion.

When the line reopened two years later, the service was cut back to Cottage Grove “L” station. And, in Sept. 27, 1997, CTA decided to remove the tracks and stations further east altogether.

Over the next decade, that stretch of 63rd Street had seen some residential development, with new buildings going up on some blocks, but some lots remained vacant.

At that point, Jake Sapstein, of Woodlawn, realized that his seemingly secure career was about to become much less secure.

“It was 2008 and the markets were crashing,” he recalled. “I was involved in real estate design work here in Chicago and was able to foresee the end of my career as my developer clients were losing their properties right and left to the banks. At the same time, the company my husband [Derek Cortelyou] worked for was also going bankrupt and he was given an about year’s notice and severance upon being let go.”

They talked about starting a business together, but they always thought it would be when they retired. Given the circumstances, they figured they might as well take a chance.

“We both needed something to do and both had the time to invest in something new,” Sapstein said. “My grandparents ran a chain of pharmacies for decades in this exact area, so it seemed like kismet when the retail space fell into our lap as an option.”

Robust Coffee Lounge interior. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

They set up shop in a portion of the first floor of a former industrial building, which was just recently converted into lofts. Sapstein said that they were able to get the funds to open Robust Coffee Lounge through a combination of cashing their 401k retirement accouts and crowdfunding. But the funding, Sapstein said, was an easy part compared to navigating the city bureaucracy.

“The process can take over a year, the whole time you likely are paying for your [retail] space, but can’t produce any income,” he said. “Our buildout took a year and two months, going back and forth [with] the City [of Chicago], then back to the inspectors and contractors, etc. Each time there’s a correction or something like that, there’s a domino effect that takes a month the get back [on track].”

Sapstein said that another challenge was spending the money wisely.

But they were able to overcome those issues, opening Robust Coffee Lounge in 2010. Sapstein said that it earned community support from the get-go.

“We did open in 2010, at the time there was no full service independent café in Woodlawn,” he said. “I think we were welcomed with open arms, I think people appreciate that it’s a business that pretty much anyone can participate in — opening something like a burger place or pizza etc. would have limited the business [in terms of offerings]. I also think people appreciate seeing a independent business that puts a lot of effort into creating the ‘full package,’ it’s an experience for all senses and was designed to be.”

Robust Coffee Lounge’s interiors reflect the space’s industrial origins, with plenty of exposed brick and some pipes. Old street and traffic signs decorate the walls and, in a nod to the corridor’s history, a photo of an old “L” station hangs on the west wall.

In addition to coffee and tea, Robust Coffee Lounge offers a wide selection of sandwiches, salads, wraps and pastries. As the site notes, many items on the menu are drawn from local vendors, including Chatham’s Brown Sugar Bakery and West Town’s D’Amato’s Bakery.

Robust Coffee Lounge interiors. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

While the “L” line that used to tower above the building is no longer there, Sapstein said that much of Robust Xoffee Lounge’s customer base comes from commuters. CTA’s bus route 63 stops near the shop, linking it to Jackson Park on the west and going as far west as Midway Airport, linking riders to several Green Line stations along the way. 63rd Street station, which serves as a transfer point between the Metra Electric line’s South Chicago branch and its main branch and where some weekday South Shore Line trains stop during rush hours, is within walking distance of the shop. Two of University of Chicago’s UGo shuttle bus routes stop near the intersection as well, connecting the students and faculty to the university’s iconic Hyde Park campus.

“I think most cafes see that their customers are the people commuting near them,” Sapstein said. “ Sometimes it’s a neighbor, but sometimes its someone who passes your place while en route to whatever. A café usually becomes a part of someone’s routine. We see a lot of our neighbors every day, but we also see a large number of commuters like the teachers from the school next to us — they come from all over the city. Also, there’s [Cook County Health and Hospitals System’s Woodlawn Health Center] next to us that people go to from all over the city, but they will come in and have a coffee before or after an appointment.”

And while he noted that the Metra/South Shore Line station didn’t seem particularly busy at the moment, he believed that, in the next seven years or so, Woodlawn population will grow, and both the Metra station and the Green Line stations to the east would become more of the community assets.

When asked whether Robust Coffee Lounge does any cultural activities and events, Sapstein said that it wasn’t something they were actively trying to do, but people can and have asked to host events and exhibits — and when that happens, they are more than willing to consider it.

“There are a lot of people out there with right hustle and we have tried to partner with that energy,” Sapstein said. “We have had authors do meet-and-greets [and] book signings, we’ve had music videos filmed at the café, TB shows filmed at the café, open mic nights, student artwork exhibits I think one of the most incredible things about owning this business is seeing how it’s taken on a life and personality of its own, influenced by our customers and the people of the café.”

And they have tried to take what they had to other locations. In 2013, Sapstain and Cortelyou opened a second Rebust Coffee Lounge location in the River North, at 416 W Ontario St.

“First [reason why we opened there was that] everyone we talked to had doubts about the 63rd Street location and would always say ‘If you can make it there … ; so we figured why not try and open in one of [Chicago’s] the busiest neighborhoods and see what happens,” Sapstein said. “Second, that neighborhood is probably one of the most familiar to me as I have had family there for decades living across the street from [the River North location] and felt like I was opening in my own backyard, even though I live in Woodlawn.”

But the realities of running a business in River North were more challenging and time-consuming than they expected.

“What we offered was second to the real key to success in River North, which was just promoting,” Sapstein said. “It was taking away from the coffee shop business and took time from our first location, so we didn’t renew the short lease we had.”

As previously reported by the Chronicle, since Robust Coffee Lounge opened, two more coffee shops sprang up in Woodlawn. Green Line Coffee opened in 2015 at 501 E. 61st Street, and Build Coffee opened in 6000 S. Blackstone Ave, near Woodlawn/Hyde Park border, in 2017. And Robust Coffee Lounge it had direct influence beyond the neighborhood. When Phil Sipka started planning to open a coffee shop in Engelwood, he reached out to Robust Coffee Lounge and asked if he could work for them in order to better understand the ins and out of that type of business.

“We were totally open to the idea, thinking — ‘here’s someone who is going to really take pride in the work they do,’” Sapstein recalled. “[We] figured it was a good idea to have an employee who always wants to do more or learn more or help out.”

Sipka wound up leaving Robust to start his own coffee shop — Englewood’s Kusanya cafe — in 2012. And he quit in a very public way — in a video segment for the Steve Harvey show where he delivered his resignation in a song, backed up by the Voices singing group. The segment went viral. While Sapstein admitted he was caught off guard at the time, he said he had no hard feelings.

“We shouldn’t have expected any less,” he said. “He’s still a dear friend and we support his ideas for his café.”

When asked whether Robust Coffee Lounge had any impact on the surrounding community, Sapstein said he wasn’t sure.

“I think we did catch a lot of interest,” he reflected. “There was a lot of doubt from almost everyone in the area and I think a lot of people watched to see how things went for us. We still get people who come in and ask ‘why here?’ but now it’s usually followed with ‘you must have known something.’ We knew nothing, we had confidence in our plan and almost nothing to lose. so we went for it and still work our butts off to keep it going.”


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