Chicago, Coffee and The Human Touch

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1oth March 2017

Chicago is a city with impressive statistics.

With almost three million residents, it’s the biggest city in Illinois state and the third biggest in the United States. Its airport is the second busiest on the planet and last year the city welcomed an incredible 54 million visitors. If that’s not impressive enough, I can tell you it’s also recognised internationally as a hub for finance, industry and technology – and boasts enough art and music to last a lifetime. But there’s something I need to know before I book my flight – does it have good coffee? The Coffee Universe spoke to a local roaster who assured us the speciality coffee scene is on the up. Introducing Andrea, of Halfwit Coffee Roasters.

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Andrea fell in love with coffee while working as a barista at university and has never looked back. “I decided – to my parent’s horror – to forgo pursuing my degree after graduation. I moved to Chicago in 2008 and was lucky to meet the right people, who furthered my interest and provided some amazing opportunities to advance into roasting and green buying.”

She’s now director of coffee with Halfwit Coffee Roasters, a company with a mission. It aims not only to provide great coffee but also to educate clients and staff – and to ensure everybody involved in the coffee process is respected and paid a fair price for their efforts.

It’s clear the crew at Halfwit value human connections. Coffee workers are assured a good deal, clients are assured a good coffee and staff are encouraged to learn and innovate.

Andrea some of the ways Halfwit keeps staff motivated.

“Since we’ve started we’ve always participated in tons of events, from barista and brewer competitions, to panel discussions, and more,” says Andrea. “Personal growth and career growth are critical in an industry who’s average barista only sticks around for a few years. We know that retaining and growing talent is an investment, and I am a living example of that – I started with the company as a part-time barista and I am now the director of coffee.”

Andrea says human relationships are also key in Chicago’s growing coffee scene.

She says: “Something that sets Chicago apart for me is that the coffee community, at the human level, is so close knit and supportive, despite the enormous level of competition and diversity amongst the various businesses. We throw parties together, lend each other equipment, support each other in a real tangible way. When Metropolis had a fire in their roastery last year, the entire city really opened their doors for them. There’s a real generosity and I think even people who have worked here and moved away still have that.”

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She says the same rules apply when she’s choosing equipment. Human connection counts.

“As a person who has worked in small businesses all my life, I tend to gravitate towards personal connections over brand visibility. There are a few really huge players out there who are still really hard to get on the phone when you need them. I’ll take a lesser known machine with a person I trust behind it than a shiny toy with a robot at the end of the line, any day.”

Are there other ways manufacturers can improve? Andrea says yes.

“I think there’s room for the industry to grow a little more humility with its machines – just because you can program your machine to ramp up, down, and sideways doesn’t mean you’re going to be a better barista, or that the coffee you’re using can be below average and somehow come out incredible. The machine is just a tool, plain and simple. It needs to be reliable and user friendly – other than that it’s all about personal preference, in my opinion.”

Talking of personal preferences, why choose Halfwit Coffee Roasters?

Andrea is more than happy to explain. “Halfwit wants to make coffee a fun experience, less button-up-and-bowtie and more band camp,” she says. “It’s unique in that it started out as the brainchild of the baristas at the Wormhole Coffee, our flagship cafe that’s in its seventh year of operation. We realized that the transparency and specific roast profiles we were looking for weren’t being provided by any of the local roasteries at that time, and we wanted to deliver the best product possible, in terms of our cafe.”

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So what do they offer, and how does it differ from other roasters in the city?

“We started with a handful of single origins and just one blend, our Triforce espresso, and only added a house blend, Moonbat, in our third year. We have no plans to offer any more blends, and we know that in doing so we’re potentially losing ground to roasters who are willing to tailor their offerings to the restaurant and grocery industries – and we’re okay with that. When we open our new cafe in the spring, we will only offer single origin coffees – a concept that is still relatively rare in this city, despite the huge number of cafes.”

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And is she confident single origin coffees will attract clients in a city with so many options?

Quite simply, yes.

Any idea why? Yes again

She says: “What I think is interesting is the real shift in customer perception of coffee – they are starting to connect to it as a food product in a way they never did before, to seasons and origins and even processing. What we’re starting to see is a need for companies of all sizes to address these new customer perceptions and demands, and to really divest from the idea of “cheap, dark, and sweet” and start engaging customers about the supply chain.”

She believes that while Chicago offers world-class food, drink and hospitality, coffee is often overlooked – but she’s confident change is on its way. “I think in the next few years restaurant groups and top-tier establishments will start to become more aware of this disconnect. No-one likes to end a nice meal with a terrible cup of coffee, but I think that’s still pretty much expected even at the very best restaurants. I think employing baristas and really investing in training for non-baristas will be the first step towards pushing coffee into the restaurant world as another ingredient, not just an afterthought.”

What a blissful concept– restaurant coffee as an ingredient, not an afterthought.

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It’s clear to me that Andrea and her team at Halfwit have vision. So what lies ahead for the speciality coffee scene in Chicago? Growth, says Andrea, but without compromising quality.

“Chicago is a city that continues to support and seek out independent businesses, and those feelings of integrity and intimacy that they provide. I think that pushes the bigger players to really stay true to their message and their quality, because their customers demand that they do. That’s a great challenge and keeps all of us in check.”

Chicago, I salute your efforts. And if there’s a lesson to learned from the city’s dynamic coffee community it is this – keep the quality high and keep the connections human.

See www.halfwitcoffee.com for further information.

All pics are from Halfwit Instagram. Check it out!