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Cafe Chicago, a 'One of a Kind' Fair Trade Coffee, Roasted Here in Chicago

By Megan Cottrell | July 2, 2013 6:22am
 Cafe Chicago
Cafe Chicago
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ALBANY PARK — On the shelves of any grocery store, you'll see dozens of options for making your daily cup of joe. Whole beans or ground. Flavored or plain. Light roast or dark.

But what about coffee that gives local immigrant day-laborers a fair wage?

You'll only find that in the dark brown beans inside the brown paper bag stamped “Cafe Chicago” in large blue letters.

“It's the only one of its kind in a country — an immigrant fair trade and organic coffee roasting co-op,” said Eric Rodriguez, director of Latino Union of Chicago, an organization that helps low-income immigrant workers find safe, living-wage jobs.

Half of the cooperative's 12 members are paid workers, while the remaining work as volunteers as the business expands. The group buys fair-trade coffee beans from women-owned cooperatives in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Colombia and Mexico, and roasts them in a local facility.

From there, the beans are packaged in Cafe Chicago's Albany Park location and distributed to more than 50 local grocery stores and cafes, including HarvesTime in Lincoln Square, Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park, Dill Pickle Coop in Logan Square and Cermak Produce in Humboldt Park.

Each store sets its own retail price for the coffee. At HarvesTime, for instance, it typically sells for $13.49 per pound. The Cafe Chicago website sells it for $15 a pound.

Jose Gallardo, 38, one of the co-op members, said running the business gives him a way to support his family, something that's difficult to find for most immigrant workers, who often work for minimum wage or less.

“I have a family to feed. I cannot survive on $8.25,” said Gallardo, who has worked at restaurants, car washes and in construction. “It's not enough to pay an apartment, gas and food. We try to establish a fair wage where the workers can survive.”

So far, each of the paid members works just part-time, two eight-hour days a week, doing the various jobs of roasting, packaging, distribution and promotion. They make $12-$13 an hour, and the co-op hopes to pay more in the future.

The group has hosted experts to teach them about marketing, business strategy and running a successful cooperative.

“We are trying to work hard to get more customers,” Gallardo said. “Then things are going to change. We are going to sell more coffee.”

Cooperative member Ivan Martin said in addition to fair wages, the cooperative also offers a positive working environment and the ability to learn new skills.

“You don't have to stand on the corner, waiting to see if someone comes,” said Martin, who also works as a day laborer. “You don't have a boss behind you telling you every time what to do.”

The co-op is part of a movement by the Latino Union and other workers rights organizations to improve working conditions for immigrants, a group that's historically been left out of the labor movement, said Bob Bruno, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the labor education program there.

Unsafe working conditions, wage theft and low-paying jobs are rampant in the immigrant community, even among documented workers.

“This is not a heavily unionized sector. It isn't one that's raising thousands of dollars for political candidates,” Bruno said. “There's too many incentives for the system to exploit them.”

Bruno said Cafe Chicago is one of a number of small cooperatives doing business in the city.

“I think it demonstrates that there really is a lot of slack and space within the metropolitan Chicago market for providing different services,” Bruno said. "If you can come up with the right product and service, it can succeed.”

Not only does the co-op fulfill a business niche and take care of its employees, but it provides a great coffee, too, Gallardo said.

"The taste, the smell — it's fresh. It's organic. We roast every week,” he said. “I'm very proud of what we do.”