PILSEN — After two years, Step Down Cafe in Pilsen is permanently closing because of the coronavirus shutdown.
Owner Leonel Rodriguez didn’t expect to serve his last cup of cafe de olla at Step Down Cafe in March. But when the state closed in-person service at restaurants, coffee shops and bars to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Rodriguez closed his shop at 2023 S. Racine Ave. indefinitely to protect his staff.
As a community hub, Pilsenites relied on Step Down as a place for freelancers to work, neighbors to meet and workers to grab a cup of coffee before starting their day. In-person service was much of the coffee shop’s business.
The months-long coronavirus shutdown was the death knell to his already struggling business, Rodriguez said. Before the pandemic, he was barely getting by while paying bills, compensating employees and buying supplies to keep the shop running.
Restaurants and coffee shops are allowed to reopen for reduced service indoors Friday, serving up to 25 percent of their normal capacity indoors. But faced with an economic downturn, Rodriguez said he knew he had to make the “difficult decision” to close for good.
“I hate to close and not see all my customers or my employees,” Rodriguez said. “I do miss it and I miss everyone. I do apologize to everyone. This wasn’t my plan.”
Now, Rodriguez plans to sell the business and the building. He made the announcement earlier this month on Instagram.
Opening Step Down Cafe was a dream come true for Rodriguez. After purchasing the building six years ago and spending years wading through architectural drawings, city permits and renovations, Rodriguez opened the coffee shop in June 2018, serving cafe de olla, mazapan latte, sandwiches, salads, tamales and empanadas.
In the shop’s early days, he envisioned it a neighborhood hangout, where families and friends could drop by to relax and enjoy some great coffee.”
He named it after the shuttered Step Down Lounge —a bar that previously occupied the storefront that he remembers walking past when he was a child.
Rodriguez first hatched a plan to open his own cafe one day while attending 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.
In February, Step Down Cafe suffered a tragedy as barista Kenneth “Kenny” Paterimos, 23, was fatally stabbed outside Richard’s Bar in West Town. Ex-Marine Thomas Tansey was charged with murder in the slaying.
Step Down Cafe was an important part of the Paterimos’ life, his family said.
The death was a blow to Rodriguez and Step Down Cafe, Rodriguez said. He planned on making Paterimos manager of the shop.
Between the tragedy and the pandemic, Rodriguez said it’s been a challenging year. Now, as he closes Step Down Cafe, he hopes someone who can build on the community he cultivated there will buy the building.
In reflecting on the past two years, Rodriguez said he was grateful.
“I want to thank everyone for their friendliness [over the last two years] …I could not have done it without them,” Rodriguez said.
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