Back of the Yards Coffeehouse plans to expand despite pandemic

It was a Tuesday afternoon in March, and Jesse Iniguez was trying to relax at his daughter’s soccer game.

But work was on his mind. He was worried about making payroll at Back of the Yards Coffeehouse, which he and Mayra Hernandez opened in 2017.

His phone buzzed. He had an email. He’d just gotten a $20,000 grant from DoorDash’s Main Street Strong Accelerator Program. He was shocked, excited — and relieved.

“It came at a moment when I was down and frustrated, trying to figure out how we’re going to continue to operate the business without the amount of revenue that we need coming in,” Iniguez said.

Like many small businesses during the pandemic, Back of the Yards Coffeehouse, 2059 W. 47th St., was struggling. When the pandemic hit, it quickly began losing revenue. The business was hit hardest in April and May last year, losing nearly $30,000, or 75% of revenue, compared to those same two months in 2019.

“It was scary.”

Iniguez and his team applied for as many grants as possible. But while they received more than $100,000 in grants and two PPP loans, most grant money came in slowly — $1,000, maybe $5,000, at a time.

DoorDash’s program was designed specifically to help Black-, Latino- and women-owned businesses during the pandemic.

“We wanted to create a program that provided grant funding and specialized education programming to restaurants most impacted by the pandemic,” said Tasia Hawkins, social impact program manager for the food delivery company.

Iniguez was awarded half the DoorDash grant upfront in April to cover pandemic costs. Then, over eight weeks in April and May, he attended classes on marketing, menu creation and personalized business planning.

Since then, Iniguez has taken steps to expand Back of the Yards Coffeehouse, proposing a multi-business building with Black, Brown, women and LGBTQ entrepreneurs from his neighborhood and seeking funding for it through the city’s Invest South/West initiative.

The building would house Back of the Yards Coffeehouse’s production and roasting operations, a bakery, a brewery and a souvenir shop.

But the biggest piece of the development would be a workforce development center, where business owners would train youth from Back of the Yards in food and beverage production and employ them after their training.

“What you hear in the news oftentimes (about Back of the Yards) is shootings and gang violence,” Iniguez said. “But we feel that the youth unemployment rate and youth violence kind of go hand in hand.”

Despite the loans and grants keeping the coffeehouse alive during the pandemic, Iniguez said its projected loss for those two years is still close to $150,000. But he remains hopeful the business can rebound.

Once a month, members of the Chicago Sinfonietta play on the coffeehouse’s back patio. Before the pandemic, there were poetry slams and children’s book readings.

“We’re hoping when the Delta variant surge goes down, we can do those things again,” Iniguez said.

Sheila, left, and Dale West, right, listen to Janice MacDonald, center left, and Dileep Gangolli, center right, of the Chicago Sinfonietta play outside at the Back of the Yards Coffeehouse at 2059 W 47th St in Back of the Yards, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

Sheila (left) and Dale West listen to Janice MacDonald and Dileep Gangolli of the Chicago Sinfonietta play at Back of the Yards Coffeehouse, 2059 W. 47th St.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Sheila and Dale West, both 35, traveled half an hour last week to try Iniguez’s Cafe de Olla and cold brew. They were pleasantly surprised to see musicians playing on the patio. It gave the place “a breezy vibe,” Dale West said. The couple looks forward to seeing what new things Iniguez will bring to the coffeehouse with the remaining grant money.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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