It’s 12 o’clock noon on a Saturday, and Chicago’s Boxville Marketplace is already teeming with life. A live DJ fills the air with music as throngs of people mill about the pavement, cold drinks in hand. It’s the opening day celebration for the new shipping container walk-up window of Southside Grinds Coffee Co., and owner Ebony Blue is doing what she does best: mingling and socializing with the crowd, making personal and memorable connections with everyone and anyone she can.
To understand how she got here, you’d have to go back a few years. As a long-time home brewer, Blue has long enjoyed a reputation amongst her friends for throwing thrilling holiday parties, anchored by a delicious selection of baked goods and always paired with coffee. “It’s just an old thing I learned from my grandmother, who introduced me to coffee,” Blue explains. People sometimes seemed perplexed when she listed their options: drip or espresso. She recalls, “in those moments, I knew how important it is to share with people my love of coffee.”
Blue fell in love with the South Side on the very first time she biked through the neighborhood, back in 2013, shortly after moving to Chicago. It was reminiscent of where she grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn: “Culturally rich, but commercially poor,” in Blue’s own words. “I really felt connected when I walked into a coffee shop called Sip and Savor. I met the daughter of the owner, and she made me feel so connected and gave me so many resources, and I remember wanting to make others feel that same way,” she reminisces. “That was when I knew that I wanted to open a coffee shop on the South Side.”
The early days of Southside Grinds were not without struggle. As she began mapping out a business plan, Blue was dishearteningly unable to secure the loan she needed to open the brick-and-mortar cafe she had long envisioned. Unwilling to scrap her dream of caffeinating the neighborhood, however, Blue swiftly devised a new plan: she would launch first as a mobile coffee cart, designed for easy transport between events, with abstract plans to expand at a later date.
In true entrepreneurial spirit, she also saw it wise to firm up a second source of income early on in the hope of creating a sustainable business model. Thus, she decided to try her hand at roasting, rising above the craft’s pesky learning curve and releasing her delicious “Out South Blend,” named after a common colloquialism for the neighborhood.
Just as the warmer weather of Spring 2020 began to allow for more outdoor, COVID-safe events, and after years of hard work, Blue finally launched her brand. Almost immediately, she was regularly serving up drinks at local farmers’ markets, at the University of Chicago campus, the YWCA, and more. To her utter delight, her cart was well-received in each new community she entered.
Her early success enabled her to quickly embark into yet another phase of her adventure: the opening of a Southside Grinds walk-up window.
Even prior to its launch, this next iteration of Blue’s dream was set to be a rousing success. Southside drew some positive advance coverage from local publications, and neighborhood interest was exceedingly apparent. In the weeks beforehand, and particularly at the opening day festivities, Blue recalls multiple community members expresing their excitement and gratefulness for this new addition to the community. “[This are] under “undercommerced, under-beveraged, and under-caffeinated areas,” Blue tells me, offering a receptive platform for a coffee bar like Southside Grinds to foster community and connection. Blue is an entrepreneur that folks simply want to succeed, and that love was on full display on opening day.
Southside Grinds’ Boxville opening menu boasts a wonderful selection of espresso beverages, brewed coffee, iced teas, lemonades, and a particularly delicious lemon cream cheese pound cake. Each signature beverage is as cleverly or punnily named as the next, including such highlights as the “Coo Coo for Coconuts Latte” and the “Tea-riffic Iced tea (of the week).” Unsurprisingly, Blue already has plans for long-term business growth. Her ultimate dream is to open a cafe with an in-store roasting experience, where she aims to “demystify how coffee is roasted.” She also aims to help close the gap between the people who farm our coffee and those who consume it by “show[ing] people that the growers are Brown, the roasters are Brown, and everything in between can be Brown, too.”
Blue’s mobile catering work will continue, with a marked focus on the needs and interests of the various clients she serves. She also plans to expand her wholesale operations into local corner stores and donut shops, since since many locals frequent these spots for their daily coffee fix. For her, this is a natural step alongside the walk-up window—part of a mission that feels compelling and true—to “spread love and caffeination across Chicago’s South Side and beyond.”
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.