Everything Evanston: Local coffee shops distinguish themselves in the caffeine scene

Delaney Nelson and Lucia Bosacoma

DELANEY NELSON: From the Daily Northwestern, this is Everything Evanston. I’m Delaney Nelson. With more than 10 cafes in the downtown area, coffee shops are a staple of the city of Evanston, giving students and community members a variety of locations to choose from. But with so much competition, what can the keepers of Evanston’s caffeine do to establish a loyal customer base? To find out, I visited three of the newest coffee shops in the area and and spoke to some of their most loyal customers. 

TONY VOLPI: You can’t go to Starbucks and get our Tesora, cause it’s a secret blend to us, so that’s how we differentiate ourselves between the rest of those yahoos, is we are handcrafted. We make them for you special, and you can’t get our blends anywhere else.

DELANEY NELSON: That’s Tony Volpi, the store leader at Philz in Downtown Evanston. He said part of the draw to Philz is the uniqueness of their coffee. They don’t do any lattes, cappuccinos or espressos. And only four people in the world know what goes into their blends.

TONY VOLPI: We do pour-over style coffee, and we customize it to the customer. We don’t let them walk away from the counter till it’s perfect.

DELANEY NELSON: Volpi said that when owner Phil Jaber came to America, he missed sitting around the table with his family. So, the chain was created with a communal environment in mind. Volpi said he the store’s comfy couches and receptacle outlets encourage people to stay a while. Being close to Northwestern’s campus, Philz also tries to attract students specifically, offering a 10 percent discount to those with Wildcards. 

TONY VOLPI: They really like the clientele, or the students at Northwestern. There’s a lot of students from California actually that know us.

DELANEY NELSON: For students from the Bay Area, Philz may remind them of home. Weinberg senior Caroline Ward said her Bay Area friends hyped up the coffee shop and convinced her to try it out.

CAROLINE WARD: I walked there with my Menlo Park friend and honestly, I was very impressed. I got a medium Iced Ecstatic, which is their classic iced coffee, and it really differentiates itself from other iced coffees by having a foam at the top, like a cappuccino. And obviously the foam is the best part of the coffee, so I was very excited about that.

DELANEY NELSON: In the days before Philz opened its Evanston location, they invited community members in for free coffee. To keep the steady flow of customers coming, Volpi said his baristas have been planning community engagement events.

TONY VOLPI: We got art coming in across the street that’s going to be for sale. We’re participating in, we’re having an a capella group come from Northwestern, actually, to sing, and we have a guy who plays guitar that’s gonna be here next week. So, we kind of try and bring in stuff — one of my employees does yoga. He’s going to do a yoga night for anybody who wants to come.

DELANEY NELSON: Next, I travelled over to the corner of Sherman Avenue and Grove Street, where the newest of Backlot Coffee’s three locations is located. Barista and location manager Claude Nshimiye said the shop’s corner makes it hard to miss. He makes it his goal to treat every customer with love.

CLAUDE NSHIMIYE: I would say what (differentiates) our coffee shop from other coffee shops is that we treat customers with respect. My boss always says that whenever a customer leaves, they feel like they have been seen, so we like to really get to know the customer, like really understand them, like making sure that we help them drink-wise and any other way.

DELANEY NELSON: Backlot also roasts its own coffee in-house. Nshimiye said his favorite drink to make is the Cortado, and he likes to surprise customers with the designs he makes. Weinberg sophomore Chloe Bollinger said one of her favorite parts about visiting Backlot is its vibes.

CHLOE BOLLINGER: They always play my favorite albums — honestly the only coffee shop I’ve ever been to where they play music that I know. And I get their decaf lavender oat milk latte every time. It puts me in a good mood. The employees are super sweet. Yummy pastries. It’s a good time.

DELANEY NELSON: Next, I went back south to Newport Coffee House on Davis Street. Sophia Healey, a barista at Newport, said the shop is unlike others in its pristine and white, open space. She said the aim is to make it a social gathering spot and a place someone can come and study. 

SOPHIA HEALEY: We have more upbeat music, more energy than most coffee shops that have that cozy, snuggle-up-with-a-book kinda feel, which I think makes us a little different.

DELANEY NELSON: Healey also said the fact that Newport is owned by a married couple makes it unique. Healey said Newport is like their baby, and remembers a time when one of the owners, Mikael Bengtsson, spent hours perfecting their pour overs. She said Lotta, the other owner, makes the food from scratch, and has taste-tested every item on the menu. 

SOPHIA HEALEY: When you get food here, you’re not just getting something that’s processed or we’re not just ripping open a plastic bag and popping something in an oven.

DELANEY NELSON: Instead, the barista will come to the kitchen and prepare the food per order, showing the effort that goes into everything they do.  

SOPHIA HEALEY: There’s no level of perfection that we can reach. We’re always trying to keep making things better and delicious.

DELANEY NELSON: Healey has worked at Newport since June. She said she has lived in Evanston for ten years, and is familiar with the coffee culture of the town.

SOPHIA HEALEY: When I first moved here, I also noticed how many coffee shops were here and that was one of my favorite things about Evanston. This one is definitely — I’m a snob now about coffee. Like, I used to love metropolis coffee but I cannot drink their coffee anymore because I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, the   espresso, it’s just not the same.”

DELANEY NELSON: With the coffee lovers of Evanston each preferring something different, it seems there is still a niche space for each coffee house to fill, and bring their own flavor to the community. From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Delaney Nelson. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in our next episode every other week. This episode was reported and produced by me, Delaney Nelson, and Lucia Bosacoma. It was edited by Ilana Arougheti and Heena Srivastava. The Editor in Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected], [email protected] 

Twitter: @delaneygnelson

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