Culture Conscious Coffee

Oromo Cafe brings an innovative flair to Lincoln Square and Bucktown. They serve organically sourced fair trade coffee, craft espresso lattes inspired by cultures of the world, organic snacks, and superfoods.

Where did you grow up, and how did you settle in Chicago?

I grew up in Turkey, specifically in Istanbul, which is a huge city like New York. When I came to Chicago, somebody said, “How does it feel to be in a big city like this?” I said, “It feels like I came to a small town compared to Istanbul.” Chicago is much smaller, but I really love Chicago. I lived here longer than I lived in Istanbul at this point: 30 years and counting in Chicago. I love everything about this city in terms of its cosmopolitan structure. People are so open to different cultures and food and festivals. It’s so well centered in the heart of the country and almost to the world. That reminds me of Napoleon’s words: “If the world were one country, Istanbul would be the capital city.” Hence, I thought I would not be able to like any other place. However, I did — Chicago, but I still have a special connection and love for Istanbul.

“Our slogan is that we’re culture conscious coffee, so we offer coffee recipes from around the world. We make coffee utilizing those recipes, infusing them with superfoods and making it into a very modern, delicious, and clean craft drink that people are looking for today. “

What’s your backstory?

I’m a pharmacist by background. I moved to Chicago because being a pharmacist in Turkey, my options were pretty much limited to be a drugstore pharmacist. I didn’t want to be a drugstore pharmacist counting pills and filling prescriptions for the rest of my life. On the contrary, the US is the most robust capital of the world in terms of pharmaceutical research and other opportunities. As a result, I wanted to grow myself into an area that offers me a lot more options than back home. So I moved here, and eventually, America turned me into an entrepreneur.

In the US, I did much work within the healthcare field for more than 20 years, with hospital systems and pharmaceutical companies. Eventually, the company, where I was employed, was sold and laid off many people, including myself. Since 1996, I’ve always had a business on the side, so I didn’t want to work for another company. That’s when my oldest son came to me with a business idea.

What did your son end up proposing to you? What was the idea?

My oldest son was also going to school to be a pharmacist, and then he changed his mind to be a nurse. At some point, however, he said, “Dad, I don’t want to go to school. Can you invest the money that you’re going to spend on college for a business?” He was working for Starbucks for five years, and restaurants like most college students do, but he developed an extraordinary passion for this kind of thing. In my heart, I always had the dream of opening a coffee shop where we serve coffee from around the world because everywhere you go, you get the same thing, cappuccino, latte, espresso. There is nothing different.

When he said that to me, I said, “What’s your idea?” He gave me this gigantic, very sophisticated menu of a concept restaurant all revolving around ginger, ginger recipes. I said, “Listen, the restaurant industry is tough, and you have no experience with this. I don’t have much experience. It’s a big undertaking. Why don’t we just turn this idea into a cafe?” I told him about my idea. He said, “You know what? That sounds great. Why don’t I turn that into something different, something even better, give me a little time.” He came back with all these recipes literally. So my son developed a concept that’s all of it is pretty much his central idea, except the few things that I contributed from the Turkish culture influence in terms of some bakeries, craft Turkish Coffees etc.

Nowadays, most of us, especially younger generations, are very much into healthy eating superfoods and cherishing cleaner foods, cherishing companies that are clean and conscientious about pollution, helping, and giving back. That’s why we sell coffee that utilizes some of the revenues into feeding the children back in Guatemala, underprivileged people via our business partners. We value giving back.

My oldest son was also going to school to be a pharmacist, and then he changed his mind to be a nurse. At some point, however, he said, “Dad, I don’t want to go to school. Can you invest the money that you’re going to spend on college for a business?”

The restaurant industry is very competitive and low-margin. What made you agree to open a cafe and then the second location eventually?

I have gotten myself into a lot of different things in my life. I have done constructions. I have done many different things pertaining to business, so I was no stranger to starting a business and running one. Admittedly, I’ve never built a coffee shop before. As a result, there were some challenges initially. We spent a little more than we budgeted, but we took our time on the development. We ended up in a gorgeous space that we can call our own because we thought about every detail. Obviously, we utilized the opinion of some of the experts that we hired to work with us. However, they only contributed to parts, whereas we put it all together.

When we just opened, we intentionally minimized our menu to offer only drinks. Our specialty has been making craft lattes with nut milks we make in house while utilizing recipes around the world and we spike them with superfoods. We figured we could not run before we walked. We needed to master the drinks first. That limited menu restricted our financial income for the first couple of years because no place can survive on drinks. However, I still remember that first day: we had a line out the door all day long. Honestly, it was terrific. Everybody around here responded to our initiative. We’ve been fortunate since the beginning that people really turned up, and they’re really supportive. To this day, we’re experiencing growth and growth. As a result, we dared to get into a second location, which is now in Bucktown.

We first mastered the drinks, then we added small bakery items, and afterward, some confections.

We first mastered the drinks, then we added small bakery items, and afterward, some confections. Our space here is not that huge, so pastries that we make and offer, need to be recipes that we can manage here. At the same time, they need to be delicious and yet inclusive. For example, we offer vegan, gluten-free, refined sugar-free options that our customers want from us and what we’re known for. Obviously, we can’t just put random things, so that was a little challenging to carefully craft and assemble those additional items. From there, we went into salads and sandwiches and soups. Right now, we offer a variety of different food options, and obviously, those are a little difficult. Many logistics go into it. We need to be able to utilize what we have in-house and think about inventory, purchasing, sales. Every restaurant and cafe owner will relate to everything that I’m saying. And these are very challenging things.

How hard was it to bring the ideas from the first location into the second one? Are you planning to expand even further?

The idea of multiple locations came to us a long time ago. I would say three or four years ago when a Canadian company and investment firm reached out to us. They told us that there is an investor from the Middle East interested in opening up five locations in Abu Dhabi, five in Dubai. We said, “You know what, this is very flattering, and I’m super thrilled and excited, but we’re not ready for something like this.” We wouldn’t know what to offer them. We didn’t have anything in place in terms of policies and procedures and the recipe books, training manuals. So we said, “Give us a little time. We’re going to come back to you when we’re ready.” That prompted the idea of growing and opening up other locations because we thought, “Hey, maybe people would be interested.”

Since then, we’ve been developing such written documentation of what we need to put together. I was talking to a firm before COVID-19 to make the legal initiatives for franchising development. The second location is a franchise model. We have built the second location. Leyla owns it, and I call her my sister. She runs it, but she’s doing everything, mirroring what we do. So everything you find here, you can see there, all the design, all the menu, and all the other concepts are the same. We did that because we wanted to practice opening a second location, and that gave us that with somebody that we trust, and we know. At this point, we are ready for a franchise venture except for that legal documentation that we haven’t completed yet. Given the world pandemic since February of this year, everybody is just waiting into their corner and dropping everything down to this survival mode. Pretty soon, once we’re clear from the COVID situation, we will pursue franchising further.

Can you tell me about Turkish coffee? Also, where does the word “Oromo” come from?

We named our cafe “Oromo Cafe” because that’s where the coffee history started. People speak their stories in different ways based on their perspective, and history can be debated, but as we understand it, there’s a region between Ethiopia and Kenya called Oromia. Oromia is where indigenous people discovered that coffee has a stimulant effect, and the ancient warriors were eating the beans, and they were getting powerful, and they were unbeatable. It was fertile land, so they were prosperous. They were dominating until the Arabs arrived and turned it into what they call Habeşistan. As a result, coffee traveled from Oromo into Yemen, and in Yemen, the people started crushing the coffee beans, putting it into their bread, making the soup out of it and became a huge thing. It traveled to the capital of the Ottoman Empire because Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1600s. It dates back to maybe 1550 and so forth. In any event, in Istanbul, it has become a sophisticated drink. From there, it traveled to Italy with the Venetian merchants who were drinking it in coffee shops in Istanbul. Turks seized Vienna, and Vienna is the first city in Europe to get acclimated with coffee from their travels to entire Europe and South America.

Around the world, everybody cherishes coffee. Everybody loves coffee. People in Vietnam made an exceptional coffee. People in Brazil made a special coffee. Argentinians called it Bonbon. French made a particular version. Italians developed all kinds of instruments to brew coffee, so it’s a world commodity. Every culture around the world did something to contribute to it. As far as being Turkish, I cannot say we invented the coffee. I don’t believe in that. But to go back to you original question: This is why we called ourselves Oromo Coffee: to give tribute to where it all started.

“We named our cafe “Oromo Cafe” because that’s where the coffee history started. People speak their stories in different ways based on their perspective, and history can be debated, but as we understand it, there’s a region between Ethiopia and Kenya called Oromia. This is why we chose this name for our cafe to give tribute to where it all started.”

What makes Oromo Cafe unique and different?

Our slogan is that we’re culture conscious coffee, so we offer coffee recipes from around the world. We make coffee utilizing those recipes, infusing them with superfoods and making it into a very modern, delicious, and clean craft drink that people are looking for today. We don’t believe that coffee drinkers today are just looking to get a sip. They want to enjoy their coffee. They want to taste something different. They want a place where they’re taking the extra mile to experiment and create something unique and something clean, something that is organic, fair trade, and utilizes coffee farms with fair labor. We’re careful about all of these. We work with companies that provide coffee to us that are clean to the environment. They are very self-conscious of things like pollution, so we’re just looking at it as an overall experience. We’re here to tell the coffee drinkers that it can be done in a much better way.

What impact did COVID-19 have on you?

We did suffer a lot. Our revenues for March, April, May, June, and July were significantly lower than what they had compared to last year or the year before. In April, we literally made one-tenth of what we made the year before. Right now, we’re about half of what we used to make. The government offered us a paycheck protection loan, which was meant to be for about two and a half months. Now we’re approximately six months into the pandemic, and that money is long gone. However, people are very supportive. They are coming. I cannot explain how grateful I am to all these people speaking about it, and I see it. Without their support, it could have been a lot worse. I have also been fortunate that I have some personal savings, and I do have a few other businesses that support a lack of income, but the rent and all the other expenses are the same, nothing has changed. I’m hoping that we’re not going to go into another deep recession. If that happens, I don’t think anybody is going to survive.

In April, we literally made one-tenth of what we made the year before. Right now, we’re about half of what we used to make.

How many employees does Oromo have? Does your oldest son still work?

There is no way Oromo Cafe can be open almost 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with only the two of us. We have more than ten part-time employees. Each shift, we have 2–3 people working, sometimes four. My son still works all the time, he is here even now making coffee. I don’t get behind the counter as much anymore. But whenever I have the opportunity, I jump in and make it for the customers, but I’m usually working to oversee the finances, the bills, the business, and marketing.

When did you feel most proud of yourself?

I was most proud when several magazines like TimeOut, Chicago, and Big Seven Travel kept nominating us as the best coffee shop in Chicago. In fact, that happened several times. The Big Seven Travel recently put us in the top 50 in the country, and we were the only coffee shop based in Chicago. I felt super, super proud, especially for my son because, as I said, this is his creation. Obviously, without my contribution, it would have been quite hard for him because he didn’t know the business side when starting. As a team, we did well, but I was super, super proud seeing that kind of recognition, how time and time again, we’ve been recognized by customers. I remember the first year into being open, one of the customers ordered an espresso. He tried it, and he said, “You know what?”. He goes, “Who’s the owner here? I’m a world traveler.” He goes, “I go around the world. I’m a huge espresso man. This is one of the best espressos that I’ve ever had.” He started asking me questions about what kind of beans, where the source is from. I was like, “Whoa!” We’re onto something. We’re doing something right here, so I was very proud.

We’re almost on the verge of releasing a craft Turkish coffee experience where we’re going to make more than ten different Turkish coffees.

What’s coming next? What are you excited about?

We’re almost on the verge of releasing a craft Turkish coffee experience where we’re going to make more than ten different Turkish coffees. Everybody knows this classic Turkish coffee, but we’re going to make some exciting combinations with Turkish coffee. We believe nobody else can have the knowledge and the background to get into something like this. From that standpoint, we think you have got to be super unique. We’re going to create that attraction as a result, and we’re looking forward to that.

I believe we have a very, very good concept, and it’s super unique. Everybody sells a cup of coffee, but people are looking for why I would go to this place versus another, and we’re giving them that reason, in my opinion. We’re standing out in terms of being unique and different. Merging our coffee culture background with a synthesis where it develops into something that is American, that is clean and conscientious. We open our arms and bring everything together: culture, that is people, that is food, that is taste, all of these together, being an environmentalist.

I believe we have a very, very good concept, and it’s super unique. Everybody sells a cup of coffee, but people are looking for why I would go to this place versus another, and in my opinion, we’re giving them that reason.

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