When I first moved to Evanston in 1997, I made a daily commute to and from my office in Chicago on the Metra line. It wasn’t a long commute from the Davis Street station to the city, but it felt like a grind, especially since I was pregnant. Now that I write from my home, however, I’m envious of the Metra morning commuters traveling from Evanston’s Central Street Station, where Upstairs Café just opened.
Evanston residents and friends Elizabeth Hubbard, Gail Doeff, and Shelley Patterson opened Upstairs Café on Nov. 5, 2012. They bought the business from Mary Lou Smith and her husband, Bill, who’d owned and operated the cafe as Top of the Tracks for 24 years.
I stopped by the new place on the third day of business to sample the baked goods and congratulate the new owners – and was immediately taken by how bright and sunny the space is, particularly the kitchen, which faces east…a good thing, considering at least one of the owners arrives by 5:00 a.m.
Recently, I asked them to share a bit of their experience opening (or re-opening, so to speak) a new business:
Patch: First off, how did the three of you meet and how long have you known each other?
Upstairs Café: Gail and Shelley met while working in a bakery. Gail and Elizabeth met through their daughters, and Gail introduced Shelley and Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Gail have known each other eight years and Gail and Shelley have known each other for about 15 years.
Patch: How did you find out about the opportunity at Top of the Tracks?
Upstairs Café: We had been looking for storefronts around Evanston and found the rents prohibitive. Gail was already selling scones and muffins to Mary Lou, so Gail asked if Mary Lou might be interested in selling us her business. She had been planning to stay on another year but liked the idea of the three of us taking over.
Patch: What experience/talents do the each of you bring to the Upstairs Café?
Upstairs Café: Gail and Shelley both went to Kendall College Culinary School and are pastry chefs. Both have worked in bakeries and sold their own baked goods as well. Elizabeth has a lot of customer service experience and has been playing store and restaurant since she was little! They also know a lot of people in Evanston and feel like they are contributing to their community.
Patch: What do your kids think about all of this? How about your significant others?
Upstairs Café: Our kids are all excited and hope to work for us over summer vacation! They love coming up to the café and sampling the delicious baked treats! As for our husbands, they are all very supportive!
Patch: What time do you arrive at the café?
Upstairs Café: We are open for business from 5:30 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, so one of us is there by 5 a.m.
Patch: What time do you go to bed?
Upstairs Café: Elizabeth tries to be in bed between 8:30 – 9:00, but then she always preferred an early bedtime! Gail takes a nap in the afternoon so she gets to stay up late, and Shelley is still trying to figure it out!
Patch: What’s been the best part of the experience so far?
Upstairs Café: Meeting the regulars and learning the morning train routines, definitely. But it’s also been fun to bring in new customers and show them what we have to offer.
Patch: Any surprises?
Upstairs Café: The biggest surprise has been how welcoming our customers are. Mary Lou was a beloved fixture at the station and we were a little worried about filling her shoes.
Patch: What sells best with commuters?
Upstairs Café: People need coffee and newspapers but they love the new baked goods that Shelley and Gail have introduced and the Tag’s donuts are a must-have!
Patch: What three things would you HATE to run out of on a given morning?
Upstairs Café: Coffee for sure [starting this week, they'll be serving coffee roasted at Alchemy in Wilmette. According to Hubbard, the owners are eager to use a local roaster]. Donuts would disappoint a lot of people and we’d hate to run out of our own baked goods, but we’d feel good that so many people had enjoyed it that day!
Patch: I’m not a morning person and clearly you all are. How do you deal with grumps like me who aren’t so friendly in the early morning hours?
Upstairs Café: Sometimes we feel a little too cheery for the customers, but you quickly know who to chat with and whom you pour coffee for, quietly.
Patch: How would you rate your experience obtaining permits and working with the City of Evanston? Any recommendations to help the process run differently?
Upstairs Café: To be fair, we are new at the “opening a business thing” so most of our problems probably came from our own inexperience. Everyone at the Civic Center has been very helpful and supportive. They seem glad to have us join the Evanston business community. We’ve learned a lot about the process and definitely recommend starting with the Economic Development Office.
Patch: How are you getting the word out about Upstairs Café?
Upstairs Café: This is such a unique location. We have a built in customer base so getting the word out is less necessary than in other spaces. However, we do have a Facebook page and we encourage people to like us so they can learn about daily specials and other special events in the Café. We are relying on a lot of word of mouth advertising because we all know many people in the area. We hope to get some more signs, especially one on the street level, to let new people know that we’re up there!
Patch: Are you only open in the mornings?
Upstairs Café: Right now we are only open weekday mornings. We are hoping to host some special events and if people are interested in using our space, they should feel free to contact us.
Patch: What do you want people to know about Upstairs Café that I haven’t already asked?
Upstairs Café: The biggest difference from the old café to our operation is that we are baking and cooking on site. Gail and Shelley have been very busy turning out coffee cakes, muffins, scones, bars and cookies. We have added a frittata to the menu and hope to add other healthy treats as well.