Kate Markham, Chicago’s retail manager of La Colombe, said the coffee shop aims to strip the coffee culture to its simplest parts to rebuild it without the elements coffee drinkers have grown accustomed to: menus, Wi-Fi, food and branded merchandise.
“Everyone offers Wi-Fi, but we don’t because we really want our café to be a place where you can come, sit and have a cup of coffee while chatting with a friend,” Markham said. “You can unplug; you don’t have to be on Facebook; you don’t have to work; we want [La Colombe] to be an escape.”
“There aren’t any other coffee shops within the area that don’t offer Wi-Fi,” said Bryan Villalobos, a regular at Six Corners in Wicker Park. “It allows customers to be free from the constant feed of social media,” he said.
This conversational atmosphere is at the café’s core, Markham said, which is a mission that’s strengthened by the decision to have no menu. Without a long list of beverages offered, Markham said customers are forced to start a dialogue about the drink they’d like to order. New coffee drinkers may be intimidated at first, but the result of this conversation will build relationships and increase awareness about the beans being brewed, she said.
Stephanie Maxwell, a barista at La Colombe, said this element makes her job more personal and worthwhile.
“Without a distracting menu, I’m able to ask questions like, ‘What are you in the mood for?’ or, ‘What’s your usual?’” Maxwell said. “This creates a conversation and one that we hope will continue with [our customers’] friends.
La Colombe. 1552 N. Damen Ave., was founded in 1994 by Todd Carmichael and Jean Phillippe Iberti, who were both working for coffee roasters in Washington State, Markham said. Together, they found that they’d go to a nice restaurant and have a delicious meal, but then be offered dessert with bad coffee, she said. The two decided to begin a business that would give quality coffee to restaurants.
“They began making culinary coffee that could be paired with any kind of food, not just dessert,” she said. “It was artisanal coffee that wouldn’t overpower the flavors and instead enhance the meal.
This simplicity remains a principle effort in La Colombe’s coffee, Maxwell said. Baristas use only necessary ingredients: coffee, espresso, water, milk, sugar and cocoa. There are no seasonal beverages, no added flavor syrups or whipped cream on top, she said. La Colombe instead wants to showcase the raw flavors of the beans from around the world.
“You won’t be seeing a pumpkin spice latte sold here anytime soon,” she said.
In order to choose where the café finds its coffee beans, Markham said Carmichael seeks out farmers who aren’t harming the environment with their practices. She said he also finds suppliers who not only pay fair wages to their workers, but also run on sustainable farmland. They brew only single-origin beans, according to La Colombe’s website.
Carmichael’s selection process is profiled on a Travel Channel television show called, “Dangerous Grounds.” With just a videographer nicknamed “Hollywood” to capture his adventures, Markham said the show highlights his uninhibited spirit.
“Todd is known for being a wild adventurer,” she said. “He did a solo trek across Antarctica and almost completed Death Valley by himself. He has four kids whom he adopted from Africa, which is an adventure in itself.”
She said “Dangerous Grounds” gives viewers a bit more insight into the involved process behind growing quality coffee beans
“The show allows people to get a sense for why a cup of coffee can cost so much,” Markham said. “They can be like, ‘Wow, that coffee was grown on that gorgeous mountain by that really cool guy building wells.’”