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John Grbac's Next Chapter: Coffee and Culture in Wicker Park's Main Hub

By Alisa Hauser | May 31, 2013 9:51am
 RED E Coffee Shop plans to open at 1562 N. Milwaukee Ave. in June, in a space that formerly housed a convenience store, BuckWick Organix.
Red E Coffee Shop Coming to Wicker Park
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WICKER PARK —  Part art house, part coffee shop, and hoping to be "a bar without the booze,"  a new venture is preparing to land just south of Wicker Park's main hub of the Milwaukee, Damen and North intersection.

Though a pair of young investors behind Red E Coffee at 1562 N. Milwaukee Ave. are virtually unknown, their partner, John Grbac — a prolific restaurateur with a long roots in Chicago — is no stranger to Wicker Park.

Located in the short-lived Buckwick Organix space, which shuttered in January, Red E Coffee Shop is just a few doors north of 1576 N. Milwaukee Ave. (now home to Francesca's Forno) where Grbac ran a breakfast and lunch restaurant, Jimo's, in the early-1990s.

In a news release issued Friday, Grbac said that when he opened Jimo's, people thought he was "nuts."

"Honest to god, there were drug needles on the streets back in those days. But I was proud to be the first to open in this neighborhood— a neighborhood that has completely changed since those early times. I am equally excited to be opening up Red E right around the corner from Jimo's all these years later," Grbac said.

Grbac, who has brought eateries like Lox 'N Roll and Coyote Moon to the city, teamed up with entrepreneurs Adam and Josh Banks, two brothers who divide their time between New York City and Chicago, to create Red E.

Reached by phone, Banks said that he and Grbac are currently in hiring mode and looking for baristas. While the plan is to open Red E in June, it's possible it could take longer due to city permits, he said.

When Red E does open, it will join a crowded coffee scene. 

In a three block radius of the 1500 block of N. Milwaukee Ave., the area has Starbucks (1588 N. Milwaukee Ave.), Caribou Coffee (1611 N. Damen Ave), a newly-remodeled Buzz Killer Espresso (1644 N. Damen Ave.), The Wormhole (1462 N. Milwaukee Ave.), and Filter Cafe (1373 N. Milwaukee Ave.) 

Adding to the caffeine frenzy, in the not-so-distant future Cafe Transit plans to open in a small 80 square-foot space beneath the Damen "L" stop at 1588 N. Damen Ave.

Banks believes Red E will distinguish itself from the pack through its "hyper-local" attention to locally-sourced coffee from local roasters as well as its commitment to local causes and a fine art focus.

An art gallery, to be called "ORNOT" (as in "Red E Or Not?"), will showcase a rotating selection of art from local artists as well as internationally-known artists.

Works by Sheperd Fairey, best known for his Barack Obama "Hope" poster in the 2008 presidential election, will be among Red E's first exhibits, Banks said.

In addition to the ORNOT gallery, the coffee shop will boast an Art-o-Mat vending machine, which will dispense $5 pieces of small art such as jewelry, paintings and photography wrapped in cigarette boxes.

Banks first saw the Art-o-Mat machine in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian and was "fascinated by the concept." He reached out to the machine's creator, Clark Wittington, to bring a machine to the coffee shop.

Banks plans to seek local art for the machine.

Red E Coffee Shop, 1562 N. Milwaukee Ave. Hours are 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Sunday. Ph: 773-698-8218. For updates on Red E's progress, visit its Facebook page or follow Red E on Twitter @red_e-coffee.