When I stepped into the offices of Aroma Coffee Co., I could tell it would live up to its name. As owner Tom Papanicholas said, “You can catch a buzz from the air.”
Coffee drinkers have been catching a buzz from Aroma Coffee for almost a century. The company was founded in Chicago in the 1920s. It vacated its dated headquarters at Racine Street and Van Buren Street in 2002, and moved to 7650 Industrial Dr., where it remains today.
The coffee wholesaler was in the news recently because its patriarch “Gust” Papanicholas died last month, at age 79.
Tom described his dad as a one-of-a-kind character, whose humor could “leave you on the floor in stitches.” He once greeted a visitor to his office wearing a uniform dress usually worn by Aroma’s female employees.
Gust was also one of the world’s last coffee gourmands. With one sip, he could tell which country the beans came from and how the flavors had been developed. His special genius was blending beans from different parts of the world to create his own smooth cup of coffee.
Gust came by his gift honestly. Back in the old country, his Greek ancestors traded coffee, tea and spices throughout the Mediterranean. It was a natural fit for this Greek-owned company to supply coffee to Chicago’s many Greek-owned restaurants. Tom insists, though, that for many restaurateurs, the bottom-line is more important than bloodlines.
Coffee can be an eatery’s biggest moneymaker. Tom estimated that a $7.00 bag could yield $140 in cups served. In Chicago in the 1940s, Gust pioneered the sale of specialty coffees and boutique blends that are now en vogue at many contemporary coffee shops in the city and elsewhere.
Apart from his sensitive taste buds, Gust was a “nuts-and-bolts” guy, who could troubleshoot any mechanical problem in the plant. As the coffee roasting process became more mechanized, Gust lamented that it was losing its human element, its artisanship. Today, Aroma has a team of 10 employees and a quarter of the workforce it once needed.
In the production area, large bags of green coffee beans from far away places are fed into a series of machines: from cleaners to roasters to grinders to plastic pouches. Aroma also produces Turkish coffee, which is ground to a consistency of cocoa and sold in their trademark blue and white cans.
With Gust gone, Tom is the fourth generation of his family to wholesale coffee. He’s constantly sampling coffee from other countries and winning over new customers, like the Forest Park Fire Department.
Tom was also kind enough to serve me a cup. I took one sip and was transported to a Formica counter. It was restaurant coffee at its finest. Smooth, just the way Gust liked it.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.