It was a rainy day, first week of February, and I stood outside a closed coffee shop in Beverly, looking up at an unlit neon sign that told me I was at the right place — Hardboiled Coffee Co.
I spotted a man inside, the fellow I had come to see, and tapped on the glass to get his attention. He was a slight man with thin gray hair, maybe 5 foot 6, not much wider than a gym locker.
He leaned a broom against the wall and hustled over to open the door.
He wasn’t expecting me. So, I cut to the chase.
“Got time for some questions?”
He nodded and let me inside.
“So, tell me about this joint.”
“Coffee shop. Roast my own beans,” he said.
I knew him from his past life hawking fancy wine to fancy people downtown, but he introduced himself to me again anyway.
“Gregg, spelled with two Gs. Wilson is the last name.”
At first, Wilson wouldn’t stop walking around pointing at things — a coffee roaster, espresso machine, vinyl records and his collection of crime noir novels. All the nervous pacing made it difficult to take notes.
I wasn’t there to see his gadgets and decorations and he knew it. I sat him down and asked why a fancy wine guy would pick Beverly, a South Side neighborhood run by the Irish that has a reputation for not being particularly kind to outsiders, to open up a boutique coffee shop?
“I’ve lived down here for nine years, and I’m here to stay, but I can kind of see where things are missing. Even my Realtor said, 'The one thing we don’t have is restaurants like the North Side,' ” Wilson said. “People say that will never work in Beverly. Well, why won’t it work? Nobody’s tried it. Maybe a little bit of an outsider approach suits this place.”
I was skeptical at first. But the more Wilson talked, and the guy can talk, the clearer it became that for an outsider he sure didn’t act like one.
Over the summer, Wilson bought tickets to Ald. Matt O’Shea’s fundraiser.
St. Barnabas needed someone to man the coffee table, Wilson volunteered. He roasted the beans, brewed the coffee and served it up himself.
When it came time to pick an architect and a contractor, Wilson got a phone book and hired businesses with Beverly’s ZIP code, 60643.
He hired baristas from the neighborhood, too. Even the blue neon sign in the front window was custom made by a Beverly shop.
“Everyone who is part of this place is from around here. I envision people hanging out. I think Beverly needs that, especially the north end over here,” he said. “I see this as a pleasant, neighborhood gathering place. It’s really been too long not have one.”
Wilson is probably right. For years, the big draw near Hardboiled Coffee at 9135 S. Western Ave. has been Rainbow Cone and the Schwinn bike shop that’s been around since the ‘20s.
And the closest thing to friendly hangout was the Starbucks at 95th and Western that shut down months ago.
That’s why Wilson says he’s not opening a grab-a-cup-to-go shop specializing in fast-foot style snacks. Hardboiled Coffee is the kind of place you'd expect to find in trendy North Side neighborhoods.
All Wilson’s coffee and espresso drinks are made from beans imported from a family-owned farm in Honduras and roasted in small batches behind the counter.
“Just one or two different roasts. It’s bold, strong, but without the bitterness on the finish,” he said. “You can tell the difference.”
Wilson makes all his own flavored syrups, too. Even the hot chocolate is special. He uses real, Belgium chocolate — not powders or mixes — that he melts perfectly and mixes with steamed milk. And every morning, he’ll bake fresh muffins, cookies and pastries.
“They are not made from scratch. We use batter that we trick up,” Wilson said. “They really turned out great.”
I ask him if thinks locals really care if the hazelnut syrup in their latte is handmade or the coffee beans get roasted a kilogram at a time.
“I gotta believe that there’s a secret hidden group of people waiting in their homes to come out and find a place like this,” he says staring off into the distance. “A quiet storm is building. I’ve met a lot of people who are well-read, well-traveled and want a place like this.”
Of course, he's not sure. He's going with his gut on this one.
“I’m not a believer in asking, ‘What do you guys think would be good?’ ” Wilson said. “No. We have a strong statement. This is what we do.”
For a moment there, Wilson sounded like a couple of Beverly guys I know who brought the South Side Irish Parade back from the dead last year.
“The way I see it, you don’t even know you want it yet, because it’s not here,” Wilson said. “Yeah, there’s risk involved. But this place will surprise them. It’ll be like all the great movies and crime novels. ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming.’”
That gets to the heart of why Wilson named the joint after “hardboiled detectives” of crime noir novels he’s read and collected for decades despite being constantly asked if the name means he’ll be serving Easter eggs.
“I’m just doing it, and hopefully people will get it,” Wilson said. “There won’t be fresh flowers on the table. No good morning sunshine or any of that crap. It’s a place with a little more of an edge. I’m OK with an edge.”
He said he plans to open the place on Monday.
By then I had what I came for, the story of a wine guy’s South Side coffee shop dreams, and I packed up my notebook and shook Wilson’s hand.
I headed back out into the Chicago cold, the hard rain stung my face, and I stared down Western with hope in my heart that if that secret group of well-read, well-traveled locals really did exist that they would soon find Wilson’s shop and fall in love with it.
Despite the foul weather I could see a long way — but I couldn’t see the future.