WEST LOOP — The cookies are coming.
After a year in development, coffee and cookie cafe Warm Belly Bakery quietly opened at 1148 W. Monroe in the West Loop this week. The independent bakery, open at 6 a.m daily, offers up a rotating selection of creative gourmet cookies.
Opened by baker Joe Dela Pena and trader Francis Wisniewski, Warm Belly produces 30 varieties of cookies weekly, ranging from the classic, including the Hazelnut chocolate chip and Turbinado sugar cookies, to the inventive. The Mexican hot chocolate cookie, PB&J cookie stuffed with peanut butter and organic strawberry preserve and cereal milk cookie — an homage to Momofuku's iconic cereal milk — are among Dela Pena's favorite right now, he said at the shop Thursday.
And, yes — the spot is offering up cookies for breakfast alongside Dark Matter coffee. The morning selection will include a less-sweet oatmeal cranberry walnut cookie, a French Madeleine and a savory cookie comprised of meat and cheese.
"It's comfort food but, at the same time, it's inventive," said Dela Pena, cookie connoisseur. "I like a good challenge and get excited about creating something new."
The cookies sell for $3 each, $16 for a half-dozen and $30 for a dozen.
From left: Warm Belly Bakery's Turbinado sugar cookie; Orange marmalade pistachio cookie; Mexican hot chocolate cookie. [dnainfo/Stephanie Lulay]
With Google's new headquarters nearby and the Chicago Children's Theatre's plan to renovate the old Near West District Police Station across the street, Wisniewski said a neighborhood cafe was really needed at the intersection of Monroe and Racine.
"There are condos being built all over the place, but there is a real lack of food in the residential area in the West Loop," he said.
In addition to a rotation of cookies, the bakery also offers an array of Dark Matter coffee drinks ($2.50 to $5), Lakeview-based Bobtail ice cream ($3.50), milkshakes ($6) and Affogato — ice cream drowned in a double shot of espresso ($6).
After a grand opening celebration next month, Warm Belly Bakery will also offer late-night cookie delivery to the West Loop, UIC campus and surrounding neighborhoods.
A fluff-stuffed S'mores cookie with roasted marshmallows (left) and a Nutella-stuffed brown butter chocolate chip cookie with pretzel salt (right) at Warm Belly Bakery. [Instagram/warmbellybakery]
From corporate to classroom to cookies
A lifelong foodie who has been featured as a guest reviewer on "Check, Please!," Dela Pena's first foray into cookies began a decade ago.
Armed with a friend's old KitchenAid mixer, Dela Pena decided to bake batches of cookies as a way to incentivize his friends to support his fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.
"I thought I'd raise a couple hundred bucks, and I ended up raising thousands," he said.
Over the years, the 34-year-old South Loop resident chased other passions, first working in finance, then teaching high school English, coaching tennis and eventually working in social media marketing. On the side, he'd cater friends' weddings and parties at their request, but never dreamed of making cookies his living.
Then, in 2013, he appeared on the TV game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and the host asked him what he'd do with the cash if he won the $1 million.
"I said, 'Oh I'd want to open a bakery' without even thinking about it," Dela Pena said.
While Dela Pena didn't win the big prize that day, he did soon meet a venture capitalist, Wisniewski, on a trip to the now-closed Downsize Fitness in the West Loop.
"I met him and he was this nice normal guy. I didn't know it, but he was the owner of the gym," Dela Pena said of Wisniewski, who lives in a 15,000-square-foot loft in the neighborhood.
The two became friends, and after Dela Pena catered his Christmas party, Wisniewski proposed partnering to open bakery in the neighborhood.
"He made a great pitch, and I thought, 'That's awesome, let's do it,'" Dela Pena said.
In addition to the new cafe, Warm Belly Bakery bakes cookies for three Dark Matter coffee bars in Chicago. The partners plan to expand to other neighborhoods in the future.
The West Loop bakery, which first announced plans to open in April 2015, is open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Warm Belly Bakery, which features artwork by artist Jaci Robbins, is now open at 1148 W. Monroe St. in the West Loop. [dnainfo/Stephanie Lulay]
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