LAKEVIEW — Helen Kim and Peter Moon thought they were going to get married March 21.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. The couple, co-owners of Coffee Lab and Roasters at 2823 N. Lincoln Ave., spent their would-be wedding day — the first day of Illinois’ stay at home order — at Kim’s specialty coffee shop, figuring out how keep the small business open.
“We were basically in survival mode and shifted completely from the wedding to focus on the business,” said Kim, who opened Coffee Lab and Roasters in December.
Businesses throughout the city have struggled to survive or have been forced to close because of the pandemic. But after months of shaky ground, Coffee Lab is doing well enough that Kim and Moon are using their business to support their communities.
One new strategy is monthly “donation days” in which 100 percent of their sales and tips go to a cause.
“There is so much heartbreak with everything happening, and we’re tired of looking to bigger places or companies to do something about it,” Kim said. “We want our cafe to be a part of the positive force that’s building something beautiful for the world.”
Unlike larger coffee shops like the Starbucks down the street, Coffee Lab and Roasters never shut down during the pandemic.
“We knew if we closed, it would probably be forever,” Kim said. “Staying open was our only option, so we had to try.”
Moon was completing his health sciences degree at Rush University and serving part-time at a ramen restaurant when the pandemic first hit.
He said he was laid off from the serving job and sped through barista training to help Kim. Within a week, he was working full time while finishing school remotely from the cafe.
Even in the early days of the pandemic, the couple was surprised to find their products in high demand.
Coffee Lab’s wholesale coffee beans were the biggest seller as people “panic shopped” by stocking up on groceries. The shop’s phone kept ringing with neighbors asking if their fresh coffee beans, which are roasted at the store, were still available, Kim said.
Now Coffee Lab’s biggest seller is its cold brew coffee, which is steeped in a 2.5-foot tower that resembles a science experiment.
Other popular items include pastries from pHlour Bakery in Edgewater, chai concentrate from Freeman House Chai in Rogers Park and potato doughnuts on weekends from Downstate Donuts, Kim said.
Strong neighborhood support has been the shop’s “saving grace,” Moon said.
The store has also received support from the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and other local business owners, including chiropractor Ria Tjiong, who leaves weekly tabs at small businesses for neighbors to enjoy a free treat while shopping local.
Kim said the pandemic has even brought in new regulars in people who are now working from home — or Coffee Lab’s outdoor patio — and taking more walks to get outside.
“When this began, I really didn’t see my business as an essential service at the time,” Kim said. “But as the weeks went by and I saw how thankful people were that we stayed open, I realized we are essential.”
Now that business has stabilized at Coffee Lab, Kim said they’re incorporating ways to regularly give back to the community, like their donation days.
The first two giving days raised about $600 each for a GoFundMe supporting Black-owned businesses and nonprofit My Block, My Hood, My City, which recently announced $700–$7,500 grants supporting South Side businesses devastated by the pandemic and looting.
Coffee Lab’s next donation day is Sept. 8.
With the family business “thriving again rather than just surviving,” there’s one more important undertaking for the Rogers Park couple: They are finally due to get married Sept. 12.
“But it was a lot to juggle and lots of adjustment to get here,” Moon said.
Coffee Lab and Roasters is open 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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