Passing the torch

Breanne Gilpatrick

Passing the torch

Former Unicorn employee takes over cafe

By Breanne Gilpatrick

The Daily Northwestern

The Unicorn Cafe always has been a family business. But after owning the cafe for 13 years, Lene Thomas had no qualms about selling it to Tracie Dahlke, a 24-year-old woman who moved from New York City a little more than a year ago.

Dahlke took ownership of the cafe, 1723 Sherman Ave., on Monday. And on Tuesday the Unicorn closed at 6 p.m. so Thomas could make the official announcement to her employees.

Thomas said Dahlke, who has worked at the Unicorn since last May, has become like a member of her family, even spending holidays at the Thomas house. And she understands the Unicorn.

“Tracie has loved the cafe the way I loved the cafe,” Thomas said. “And I figured this was the way to do it instead of selling out to a corporate cafe. It was not an easy decision to make, but sometimes you move on.”

The idea of selling the Unicorn came up spontaneously during a conversation with Dahlke in December, Thomas said. She said she agreed to sell the cafe because she wanted to have more time to spend with her two daughters.

“The cafe has always been my baby,” Thomas said. “And when I had real babies, I had to prioritize.”

Dahlke first came to the Unicorn after leaving New York City for Chicago in March 2003. She came to Evanston from her home in Rogers Park after receiving a coupon for the Starbuck’s Coffee at 1724 Sherman Ave., but gave the coupon away to someone outside and decided to go to the Unicorn across the street. Dahlke said she liked the cafe’s atmosphere immediately.

“It’s friendly,” Dahlke said. “You can talk to people. I didn’t know anyone when I came here and I met people just by coming in here. It was just such a juxtaposition after the closed environment of New York.”

In fact, she liked it so much that in May she decided to start working there — even though she didn’t have any experience working in a cafe.

“I had never made a coffee drink before,” Dahlke said. “I made coffee for the first time in a play. And the actor had to drink it on stage and ‘act’ like he liked it because it was so bad.”

But now, Dahlke said, she knows all about tea, coffee and other drinks and is looking forward to having a chance to impress the Unicorn’s customers.

She said she wants to work on a new ordering system, new menu items and new marketing techniques, including the possibility of making sure every new Northwestern student receives a coupon for a free drink at the Unicorn. And Dahlke said she is always willing to listen to new ideas.

“We’re a community and we don’t survive without the public,” she said, “so I’m totally open to suggestions and willing to do anything I can to incorporate them into making this a better place. This has been such an important part of my life, and I want to do whatever I can to extend that.”

General Manager Sharon Hoyer said Dahlke already has come to her to get opinions.

“She’s consulted me a lot,” Hoyer said. “She’s really involved and wants the employees to shape the cafe.”

Weinberg junior Donnie Maley comes to the Unicorn several times a week, and he said he’s glad the Unicorn was sold to someone who knows the cafe.

“I think because she’s worked here for awhile, I think she knows how we like the Unicorn to work,” Maley said between sips of his coffee in the cafe. “I think she’ll continue to make that happen.”