Back of the Yards Coffee: Fuel for the Community
How a Cup of Java Spurred Community Development on the South Side of Chicago and Beyond
Neighborhood artisanal coffee shop that focuses on more than just the beans
2018 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Bronze Prize Winner
Back of the Yards Coffee Co.
For years, Chicago’s Back of the Yards community was a coffee desert – segregated from the rest of the city. Some South Side residents had never even entered a coffee shop, according to locals Jesse Iñiguez and Mayra Hernandez.
Jesse and Mayra recognized the neighborhood’s need for a community center — a need they knew could be filled by a coffee shop. They began formulating plans for what would eventually become Back of the Yards Coffee Co., an artisanal coffee roaster dedicated to giving back.
Fueled by a desire to build their community and a mutual love of coffee, Jesse and Mayra began selling cold brew at farmers markets. The pair was overwhelmed by the demand and decided they could take their business to the next level. To that end, they started a crowdfunding page with a goal of $10,000.
“We raised $17,000, mostly from $5, $10 and $15 donations,” said Jesse. “It wasn’t about the money we raised; rather it was the number of people that donated. We had the community’s support.” In November of 2016, the shop opened with a line around the block.
Back of the Yards Coffee isn’t just about the coffee. Its business model is grounded on four pillars focused on bettering the community. The business plan follows a model Jesse called SEED, which stands for social impact, economic development, environmental consciousness and direct relationships.
For every bag of coffee sold, Back of the Yards donates a dollar to a social impact fund. “We are planting the seeds for growth in our community by investing a portion of sales directly back to neighborhood programs that promote peace and education. We are committed to employing local youth,” said Jesse.
Employing local young people is a major priority for Jesse and Mayra. “There are over 4,500 youths between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of school and unemployed in the community’s two-mile radius,” mentioned Jesse. “Our employees live and buy in the neighborhood. Any dollar that is spent in our coffee shop gets multiplied several times before it leaves the community.” The coffee shop also buys locally for those products not made in-house, stimulating other local businesses.
In addition to sourcing products locally, the company is environmentally friendly. All paper and plastic products, including the coffee bags, are fully compostable. “We are committed to diverting 95 percent of our waste from landfill to compost,” said Jesse.
As part of its business model, the coffee shop remains committed to fostering relationships in the local community and abroad. Back of the Yards Coffee sources its beans from a farm in Chiapas, Mexico, paying a premium price to ensure fair employee wages and sustainable practices. “Before we started working with them, the farm was producing three bags of coffee per hectare. We have developed a program with the farm and our exporter which will enable the farm to produce 40–60 bags per hectare, a growth of roughly 1,500 percent,” said Jesse.
The FedEx Small Business Grant will allow Back of the Yards Coffee to take the next step in expansion. The coffee shop is in the process of building out its roasting facility. The grant will go toward new equipment and hiring. “We’re very humbled and thankful that we were selected for this grant,” said Jesse. “It’s going to go a long way in allowing us to continue our mission.”
Find out more about our yearly contest and our past winners here.