Creating a cafe that's mostly outdoors in Chicago, a town that spends approximately half its year shivering, may seem counterintuitive to most people. But cold-weather veterans Lincoln Fowler and Scott Schwebel of Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee Co. are not most people. “We’ve never had an idea that we couldn’t complicate,” says Fowler, who founded the company, known then as Alterra Coffee, with partners Ward Fowler and Paul Miller in 1993. Their first cafe opening beyond the jokingly-disputed Wisconsin-Illinois border is a roomy Lincoln Park indoor-outdoor space meant to continue the vibes of coffee, community, and outdoor gathering the company's made work so well in Milwaukee and Madison—despite the prevailing weather.
The location realizes years of neighborhood research, operations planning, and a well-adhered-to expansion plan. “We weren’t even looking into Lincoln Park,” says VP of Brand and Marketing Schwebel, who says it was the space itself that found them. “We stood at the corner and asked, ‘Can we feel it?’”Schwebel says. The answer was yes.
The location was a shuttered Einstein Bros Bagels and its accompanying parking lot. In it, the Colectivo team saw potential to create an oasis-like feel on the busy Clark Street corridor a mile or so south of Wrigley Field. Though retail shops, restaurants, and sports bars are legion here, good coffee is considerably less represented. But it seems the Colectivo touch—a knack for bright and colorful patio spaces where customers can gather around fireplaces between darting in and out for continued refreshment—works here. Permanent red umbrellas cover an array of orange tables and red chairs—the funky and fun designs feel alive and intriguing. The fireplace, with an open flame and bench seating, is supremely cozy. Three-season heated awnings accompanied by wood partitions provide shelter from the sun and rain. Housed inside the awnings are huge overhead heat lamps to ward off the cold, a tactic not uncommon in Milwaukee. Though newly opened, the handmade, rustic design of the space delivers the feeling of a weathered and cherished locale.
And then there's the inside. Once you pass through the burnt-orange front door, the warming aroma of Colectivo's Milwaukee-roasted coffees permeate the shop, in a range from pleasing blends to feature-farm single origins. Saunter up to the bar and be greeted by a multi-Hario pour-over station, suite of Mazzer grinders, and a powder-blue La Marzocco espresso machine. Ready-to-go coffee is served up in FETCO XTS brewers.
Those paying close attention may recognize Troubadour pastries from shops like The Goddess and The Baker, among others, across Chicagoland. Scones, bread, and ready-made ingredients are transported from Bay View, Wisconsin, prepared with the same attention to detail and craft that one expects from the quality pours happening at the bar. Alongside sparkling and regular water on tap, Colectivo's popular breakfast burritos with citrus-twisted salsas are available in pesto or chorizo, and everything from protein bars to gluten-free options to blueberry muffins is delivered fresh from the Colectivo commissary kitchen on the daily. Choosing regional purveyors, for items like Door County cherries and Wisconsin-German sausages and cheeses help ease the heavy logistics of keeping this food delivered on-time and fresh.
The cafe, whose name is inspired by the colorful buses that pick up and transport workers in South America, finally opened its doors this spring—roughly six months after the company anticipated. Its dimensionality in look, feel, and storytelling will be trialed in the Windy City through future shops to come—Fowler says two more shops are already in the works, including one in the Logan Square neighborhood. And while the City of Chicago can be a notoriously difficult place to open up shop—delays are frequent, special requests often collide with antiquated regulations—Colectivo’s mission-first coffee mentality, ambitious design, and passion for community have seen them through this opening with flying colors. Those—and maybe a little no-nonsense, weather-hardy Wisconsin determination.