The idea for Prana Café, a new coffee shop at 1840 Oak Ave. in Evanston, was born on a trip across the country.
Café owner Griffin Cox and his father, Ken Cox, embarked on a road trip to California two years ago, after Griffin’s mother passed away. Griffin, who is 19, took a year’s leave from the University of Chicago, while Ken took time off from his business as a decorator.
On their trip, Griffin and Ken decided to visit the original Philz Coffee, now a chain with several locations in California. Owner Phil Jaber is known for carefully crafting his unique blends and for selling coffee brewed one cup at a time.
After visiting Philz, Griffin and Ken were taken with the idea of opening their own coffee shop—and started to look for locations back home. At first, they considered a spot in Rogers Park, where they live, but it would have required them to change the site from retail to food. Furthermore, opening a restaurant in Chicago was fraught with restrictions, Griffin says, whereas in contrast, “Evanston has just been so pro-business.”
The father and son settled on the former site of MecaFresh Café, in the first floor of the Enterprise Building on Oak Avenue. Originally, they had just wanted to sell coffee, but because the restaurant was already outfitted to serve food, they decided to sell soups, sandwiches, salads and smoothies.
“We kind of stumbled into it,” admits Griffin.
He and his father spent three months transforming the place, taking out the fluorescent green tiles on the floor and painting the walls in soothing colors. They officially opened for business in early October.
Griffin says their focus is on fresh, high-quality ingredients, in keeping with the store’s name, Prana, which is Sanskrit for “life force.”
“Our approach to food is that feeding someone is a sacred act,” he explains.
Prana brews Chicago’s own Metropolis coffee, makes paninis on bread from the local Italian bakery Casa Nostra and uses only cage-free eggs.
“As a consumer, every dollar is a vote,” Griffin says.
The staff also hand-slices the meat for the sandwiches, he says, which in comparison to pre-sliced, is like “night and day, at least with high quality meats.”
But Griffin’s favorite part of the store is the Oogave soda fountain, which purveys sodas flavored with agave, a natural sweetener. The unusual flavors include watermelon cream, strawberry rhubarb, and grapefruit.
“Customers seem to love the grapefruit,” says Griffin—although his favorite is strawberry rhubarb.
Griffin is taking a second year off from the University of Chicago to run the business. He was majoring in chemistry, but learning how to run Prana (the first food establishment he or his father has ever been involved in) has made him consider a new major.
“Now it’s looking like business,” he says—although he feels like he’s already learned a lot.