In Woodlawn there are blocks where all you can see are vacant lots, abandoned buildings and corners with
businesses such as liquor stores, which don’t build community within a neighborhood. Small business owners can find it very difficult to keep their heads above water in areas like this.
However, Jake Sapstein’s not having any major difficulties these days.
Sapstein is the owner of Robust Coffee Lounge located on the corner of 6300 S. Woodlawn. He and his business partner, Derek Cortelyou–who is also his life partner of ten years–have been in the space for five months.
Sapstein says he chose Woodlawn because the neighborhood needed a shop like his.
The idea behind Robust, Sapstein said, was for it to be a campus staple for the University of Chicago and the community nearby.
Sapstein had never worked in any coffee establishments before.
“I’ve worked a lot in the industry. I’ve worked for Gibson’s restaurant as a bartender. I worked as a server throughout college as well as high school,” he said.
Sapstein appreciates the great response from the neighborhood so far.
“This is something that is so diverse that everybody can enjoy it. You don’t have to have money, it doesn’t really matter what your background is, this is a place for you to come and study, work and relax and have coffee, which is something that everybody enjoys,” he said.
Time Out and the Maroon have written up Robust and helped drive the thirsty and curious to its door. But despite all the good press, Sapstein is still concerned about the reputation of the area and how late to stay open.
The current hours are Monday through Friday, 6am to 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 7am to 7pm.
“That’s actually been a concern of ours because a lot of our customers ask will we stay open later? It seems reasonable because some of the big chains stay open until 9 or 10 o’clock or later. We’ve said to people that as the neighborhood progresses, we’ll expand our hours. Until that point, we try to be thoughtful of everything that’s going on around us,” said Sapstein.
Justin Boyd, a Woodlawn resident and regular customer, had nothing but good things to say about the lounge.
“I liked it, it’s great. I’m in support of small guys,” says Boyd, who lives on the 7300 block of Woodlawn and is a Kennedy King College sophomore.
“There’s a Starbucks not far from my house, but I’d rather come here,” Boyd explains while sipping on a mocha latte.
Christina Jenq, a Ph.D. student at University of Chicago and a Hyde Park native for the past three years, has also been a regular customer for the past couple of months.
“I was very excited when I found out about it,” Jenq said, while typing on a paper on her laptop. Jenq thinks this sort of business is a great change for the area.
In the future, Sapstein plans not only to remain in the Woodlawn area, but to expand his lounge to other areas as well, especially college campuses.
Leecos Omollo, a first year MBA student at Northwestern and resident of Woodlawn for the past year and a half, has been coming to the lounge since they opened.
Omollo would like the hours to be extended.
“I’ve asked them many times, I want them to close at midnight. But I know the neighborhood has to change for that to happen,” Omollo said.
Dr. Leon Finney is the pastor of Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, and also works with The Woodlawn Organization.
He shared his ideas about businesses and the area.
“It’s a market issue. Where’s the critical mass of people with disposable income? There aren’t enough blacks working now; we’ve lost 15 million jobs. We need a robust community. There are not enough people in the population for retail,” Finney said.
Lauren French, a senior at University of Chicago Charter, doesn’t reside in Woodlawn but has been a regular customer for six months. She also had good things to say about the lounge’s presence in the neighborhood.
“I think it has a positive effect on the neighborhood, its bringing people together, getting students to do more work,” she said.