Higher costs force Metra Istria to close

The new Café 57 won’t serve gelato or paninis, but aims to be more “bike-friendly” by offering whole fruit smoothies, fruit cups, homemade ice cream, and hoagies, said co-owner Tony Wilkins (M.B.A. ’86).

By Crystal Tsoi

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Istria Café on East 57 Street closed its doors on December 18th, but not a single commuter missed their morning coffee. The following morning, a new coffee shop, Café 57, opened its doors at the same location.

Under the same management, the new owners plan to change the former Italian-style café into a local café for residents, commuters, and bicyclists.

The new co-owners, Belinda Lipscomb and Tony Wilkins (M.B.A. ’86), have worked extensively to redevelop a new vision and menu for the café. The café will no longer serve gelato or paninis, but instead will offer whole fruit smoothies, fruit cups, homemade ice cream, and hoagies.

Wilkins said he hopes Café 57 “will become more bike-friendly and let people up north know that they can use the place and have a few Cliff Bars.”

Despite a set of regular patrons and a location near University of Chicago students and Metra commuters, a “multitude of inflationary pressures and operational constraints…led to this difficult decision,” former owner Marc Pribaz wrote in an e-mail response to Eater Chicago Blog.

Lipscomb believes the unexpected closure was catalyzed by growing investments by Pribaz’s other building, an Istria Café located inside the Hyde Park Art Center building on South Cornell Avenue at East Hyde Park Boulevard. “He was investing money in the other shop and was backed up behind on so many of his bills,” she said.

For Istria employees and regular customers, the closing of the coffee shop underneath the Metra Tracks came as a surprise. Former store manager and current co-owner of Cafe 57 Lipscomb and other employees were notified a week before the café closed.

Liz Moyer, a professor of geophysical sciences, shared the news with members of the University of Chicago Velo Club and rallied fellow cyclists to help keep the café open. Moyer helped convince Booth School graduate Tony Wilkins to invest in Lipscomb’s vision of Café 57.

Wilkins spent four hours observing Lipscomb and the business at the café. “I saw her greet everyone who came in by their first name and making their drinks before they had even ordered,” Wilkins said.

Lipscomb stepped in to become a co-owner of the café.

“I have been with Istria for six years already as a store manager,” Lipscomb said. “This wasn’t a plan of mine. I was not planning to do this, but I was pushed into a situation that was bigger than me. [Pribaz] offered me another job at the other shop, but the thing is, it’s not fair to the community, the kids who are growing up in this area, and to the rest of the staff since the staff was going to be out of work about a week before Christmas,” she said. “The place wouldn’t have been safe empty. It needs to be occupied.”

Wilkins also agreed that the café should remain open during the transition of ownership, and so they opened shop on December 19.

Wilkins believes that Hyde Park retail is now experiencing an upward trend which will help the cafe venture. “I think a big turning point is the Harper Square development,” Wilkins said. “People who won that bid really paid attention to what Hyde Park is about, and [they are] putting in a program that I think is going to give us a better retail profile.”