By Nona Tepper
Counter Coffee's new owners have brewed up a new look for the community coffee hub.
Black and white walls dotted with straw hats and a colorful tapestry have replaced the shop's former off-white walls. New lighting, floors and furniture have been installed, and the counter has been moved back a couple of feet.
A new menu, expanded hours, updated outdoor seating and a meeting space have also been added. The renovation started about six weeks ago.
"We're not Starbucks, we really have our own identity," said Vito Claps, vice president of business development at Java Master International, an Elmhurst-based coffee roasting firm that bought the Forest Park business in January. Java Master bought Counter Coffee, 7324 Madison St., from the owners of Team Blonde.
"We're an African-themed, communal coffee shop," Claps, a River Forest resident, said of the coffee shop's new look.
New owner Jacques Shalo grew up on a coffee farm in Cameroon. His experiences growing up there led him to develop a deep appreciation for the value chain of coffee --the process of understanding where every dollar goes and how the bean gets to the cup --as well as the drink itself.
About 30 years ago, he founded Java Master International, a firm that has developed a new type of coffee roaster that roasts green coffee beans in small batches of hot, forced air.
Most "big box" firms drum-roast enormous batches of green coffee beans. During the drum-roasting process, the husk of the coffee bean, known as the chaff, chars and separates from the bean. The burnt chaff imparts the bitter flavor commonly associated with coffee.
During the Java Master Roasters seven-minute roast, a vortex of hot air separates the beans from the chaff before burning, which leaves a smoother drinking coffee without the bitter notes.
Shalo also tries to purchase and supply mostly African green beans from Kenya, Ethiopia, Sumatra and elsewhere.
"He eats the green beans every time he walks by," joked Evan Beadleston, general manager and barista.
Beadleston, of Oak Park, worked at Counter Coffee under both the old and new owners, and he said the biggest difference the change has brought is to the quality of the coffee. Counter Coffee used to source coffee from the Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee.
"I'm not sure of the exact numbers of Intelligentsia, but it probably took a couple months from it being roasted to getting in the cup. Ours is a couple days, at the most," Beadleston said. "If you like espresso, this will be the best espresso you'll ever have. I think that change to fresher coffee is very noticeable."
Counter Coffee also tries to use mostly real silverware, instead of disposable plastic items, and plant-based chemicals. The disposables Counter Coffee does use are all compostable.
"We have zero harm to the environment, zero addition to the landfill," Beadleston said.
Shalo, along with a group of local investors, bought Counter Coffee with the aim of keeping the community hub open, and using it as a place to showcase his Java Master Roaster.
Initially, when he bought the coffee shop, Claps said they planned on "shining the place up, and keeping it running, and putting our roaster in."
But the group knew the floor was uneven in certain spaces, with cracked tiles. At first, they tried to cover the flaws with rugs.
"The main issue was behind the counter the flooring was the tripping hazard," Beadleston said.
They decided to update the floor. Forest Park National Bank & Trust Co. extended the business a generous line of credit and investors decided to remake entire the upstairs space. In about six months, they plan to update its basement.
"You don't get a line of credit like that if you're a new business," Claps said. "We quickly shared with them our plans, the whole thing, and they loved it."
The group brought on Asia Babbington as a designer. Babbington is an Oak Park and River Forest High School alumna who started Salvaged Sanctuary, an interior designer and custom furniture studio in Chicago.
"She's not only an incredibly talented designer, she's not afraid to pick up a saw; she's a welder," Claps said.
Babbington helped salvage "a high percentage" of Counter Coffee's original woodwork, remaking the countertops and shelves from the coffee shop's old tables, which were created from wood from the owner of Team Blonde's childhood home in Michigan.
Shalo's son Jeremiah, also an OPRF grad, added his own touch by designing Counter Coffee's new tapestry, colors, bathroom sign and creating the colorful new artwork on the side of the building.
"It's really just been a huge, family-oriented project, and one that actually turned out very well," Beadleston said.
Counter Coffee has also updated its food menu to include vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options like cauliflower crust pizza, a corn bowl, salmon toast and more. All pastries are also made in-house in the kitchen downstairs.
Downstairs, the group has also added a conference room with full audio and video capabilities that individuals can rent. Prospective renters should call Counter Coffee to reserve their space.
"I definitely view this as a community hub," Beadleston said. "You get people from a couple-mile radius who come here every day, and it's always great to see them. You get to know them after a while. It's fantastic."