PILSEN — The road to opening Step Down Café has been a long one for Leonel Rodriguez.
After wading through architectural drawings, city permits and renovating the space he purchased years earlier at auction, Rodriguez, 51, opened his family-operated coffee shop at 2023 S. Racine Ave. in Pilsen last week.
The café offers Big Shoulders Coffee, teas, smoothies, baked goods and sandwiches from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
Rodriguez hopes to see Step Down Café will become a neighborhood hangout, where “families and friends can come, relax, talk and enjoy some great coffee.”
Step Down Café is named after the Step Down Lounge — a bar that previously occupied the storefront that he walked by often as a kid. Too young to venture into the drinking establishment at the time, he’s enjoyed customers stopping by and sharing memories of the former bar.
The seed for the shop was planted while Rodriguez attended culinary school, first at Washburne Trade School and then Kennedy King College, where he completed his associate degree in culinary arts in 2012.
His love for cooking gave him encouragement to juggle classes while maintaining full-time employment — first working for the City of Chicago’s Animal Care and Control and then as a detention aide for the Chicago Police Department, where he’s still employed.
After graduating, Rodriguez began picking up side gigs, cooking once a month for the Adventurers Club, a group made up of travel enthusiasts. When he heard his former Washburne instructor Tim Coonan had opened Big Shoulders Coffee, he reached out to learn how Coonan went about setting up his business. Coonan gave him tips on the trade, and helped getting his baristas trained, Rodriguez said.
Lorena Rodriguez, 51, threw her full support behind her husband’s dreams to open the coffee shop when they bought the building roughly four years ago. She had witnessed Rodriguez’s hard work and drive for many years and wanted to help make his dream become a reality.
“I’m excited because this is something he really wants,” she said. “He has been working really hard all his life.”
Lorena said her husband has managed to carve out time for his dream cafe despite his full-time schedule. On top of investing time on the business side of running the shop, he built the counter space and interior wooden panels with his uncle — carpentry skills Rodriguez learned as part of an apprenticeship program through 18th Street Development Corporation.
Lorena credits her husband’s unwavering commitment, hard work and drive to his early childhood.
Rodriguez was born in La Palestina, a small town in the Mexican state of Durango. He recalls his family growing up not having much money. Once a year, his grandfather would use tires that had been tossed in the garbage to make huaraches for Rodriguez and his two brothers.
“He would heat up a knife and cut the tires into the shape of a huarache, then cut holes for the [sandal] straps,” Rodriguez said. He remembers the initial discomfort and bleeding that would accompany his new sandals but said it was something he got used to over time.”
Since childhood, he worked to help his family bring in money. A year after arriving in Pilsen, Rodriguez started working at La Mascota, a panaderia on May and Cullerton when he was 10 years old. For three years after school and on weekends, he would help clean bowls, package bread, and make conchas. At 14, he started working at La Caperucita, a clothing store on 18th Street.
Throughout high school, he worked at neighborhood grocery stores, delivering papers and doing odd jobs to help his family.
Rodriguez said his family didn’t have much growing up, “just the bare necessities.” He acknowledges he’s come a long way since the days of wearing huaraches made from discarded tires. The coffee shop is symbolic and physical proof.
“It took me awhile, but we did it,” Rodriguez said.