October 12, 2010

Robust business brews south of 60th

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A sleek brick building with stainless-steel accents stands out on South 63rd Street at Woodlawn Avenue, surrounded by empty lots and dilapidated apartment buildings. The street is empty, but inside the corner ground-floor unit, business is steady at Robust Coffee Lounge.

A realtor by training, the owner Jake Sapstein first got the idea to open a café and deli while showing condos at the building. Built in 1890, it had been gutted and redeveloped after 35 years of vacancy. Prospective buyers asked what was going into the first-floor retail units and said they would love to have a coffee shop or a deli in the building. Realizing there was demand, Sapstein decided to meet the need with Robust.

The café and deli, which first opened its doors at the end of July, seats 75 people in a mix of tables, comfortable chairs, and bar stools.

“We’re not the kind of aficionado that some people would expect,” said Sapstein, whose coffee is “cheaper than Starbucks, a little bit more than Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Sapstein said he looked at coffee shops in the area to see what niche he could fill. Noticing that Third World Café and Backstory Café closed early in the afternoon, he keeps Robust open until 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on the weekends.

“We looked at the other coffee shops to see what they were doing wrong,” Sapstein said.

He said the large space makes it an appealing option for students looking to get out of the dorms—especially South Campus Residence Hall—and study, using the café’s free wireless Internet.

Sapstein said he’s been getting traffic from University affiliates like business and law school students as well as local Woodlawn residents. He said most of his business comes from neighbors living within a four-block radius of the café who have changed their routines to incorporate Robust.

“Even if there’s a coffee shop in your dorm, you’re not going to study there,” Sapstein said, adding that while students like the change of scenery, they can rest easy knowing that there’s an emergency blue light right outside Robust.

The community was ready for a higher-end food option nearby, Sapstein said, citing the success of community gardens and urban farms in the area. “There are people that are more aware of better products in the neighborhood,” he said.

Sapstein said his main priority is catering to people’s needs, whether that means offering vegan options or paring a turkey sandwich down to the basics for a picky eater. “If you’re going to buy it, then we’re going to carry it.”

The café offers Milwaukee-based Alterra coffee, baked goods, and deli options like a barbecue brisket sandwich with slow-cooked pork, cheddar cheese, and a pretzel bun. Robust also stocks offerings from local bakeries, like Brown Sugar Bakery on East 75th Street and South Calumet Avenue. “We’re kind of like a curator of all the fine baked goods you can get,” he said.

According to Sapstein, the University of Chicago Woodlawn Charter School came to him and asked if he would sell Gatorade. It wanted the kids to come to Robust for snacks and drinks after school instead of going to the gas station convenience store nearby.

Business has been good enough that Sapstein is already looking to expand the store’s space as well as its offerings: He’d like to add a full-service restaurant with breakfast options like eggs and hash browns.

While most of East 63rd Street is currently home to plenty of empty lots, Sapstein said that between the southward expansion of the University and the needs of South Side residents, the area has the potential to become a retail hub.