Backstory Cafe

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

The rapid downturn in the state of our economy has many investors running scared. On the other hand, we at Backstory believe that there couldn’t be a more appropriate time for the investment we’re making. Along with the other businesses and projects based in the Experimental Station (and similar efforts around the city, the country and the world), we’re working to create independent infrastructure and a self-sustaining resiliency that will support our communities in the lean years to come.

Backstory is a café and social center in our first year of operation on the South Side of Chicago. The café serves healthful, sustainable food in a neighborhood with too few food options. Through our programming, we aim to become a destination for creative cultural activity and collective learning. Situated between the disparate neighborhoods of Woodlawn and Hyde Park, we strive to be an inclusive gathering space where people from diverse backgrounds can meet, interact and build meaningful, committed relationships.

To get Backstory up and running, we have contributed upwards of $40,000 in capital and countless labor hours. Yet the most noteworthy investment we’ve made can’t be tracked on a bank statement or time sheet. Our real investment has been in each other. While our ultimate goal is to grow a broad and inclusive community in the long term, our first step has been to invest in the relationships at the core of Backstory. Our five-person owner/manager team arrived at Backstory via very different paths. The skills, resources, passions and ambitions we bring to the project are varied. Over the course of time and many long conversations, we have begun to understand each other’s motivations and dreams, to interpret each other’s emotions, to anticipate each other’s triggers, to trust and support each other as individuals and collaborators. This is a slow process. Understanding doesn’t necessarily come easily, but this is the commitment we are making to each other. More than business partners, we are becoming life partners.

We recognize that a community built without solid and committed relationships at its core will lack the integrity and agility to weather any hard times that might come—and we certainly do anticipate hard times. Like every small business in its first year of operation, we are constantly navigating obstacles and we see more on the horizon. However, unlike business owners who’ve been caught off guard by the failure of a system they trusted, we understood the workings of capitalism to be fundamentally flawed to begin with.

We approached the world of business as a tool—limited but potentially malleable when handled intelligently and ethically. In a country of unmatched diversity, with persistent division along race and class lines, commercial culture is one thing we all undoubtedly have in common. For better or worse, this makes the space of business more effective at reaching a diverse audience than social clubs, community centers and faith-based groups tend to be. Since stretching across racial, economic and cultural boundaries is central to Backstory’s mission, business is a particularly effective tool—yet, we are committed to combining mainstream business practices with other economic models.

Given this perspective, we actually feel validated and encouraged by the widespread loss of confidence in the all-mighty market. What better proof to the claim that building the infrastructure for an autonomous local economy is the sanest response to our hemorrhaging culture? We feel confident that the resources and capacity we are growing on the South Side will make our small corner of the world better equipped to survive the current financial meltdown, and the myriad other crises that seem increasingly eminent. We see our enterprise as a mindful, community-oriented counter-point to an economic system that promotes reckless consumption and competition.

Our work is well situated within The Experimental Station—a not-for-profit with a rich back-story of its own. The building was saved from the city’s bulldozers after a fire in 2001 through the solidarity of those committed to the community that had begun to form there. The social and economic investments made by the artists, activists, educators, journalists and community members who saved the building and formed the Experimental Station have provided a solid foundation from which to grow. The cafe is built upon the already existing camaraderie, community, and diversity fostered over more than a decade, and we represent a second generation within this community.

The mission of the Experimental Station is to act as an incubator for independent initiatives, such as Blackstone Bicycle Works, the 61st Street Farmer’s Market, and the Woodlawn Buying Club, as well as informal groups that gather for monthly bread bakes, beer brewing sessions and more. It is the relationships built through these activities that under-gird our work. True to its mission, The Experimental Station is a nurturing environment that bolsters us against the vulnerability and isolation that could easily color such a risky endeavor. Contrary to common expectation, however, this support comes less from the official administrative capacity of the not-for-profit than from the truly diverse range of individuals that share the building, producing an atmosphere of sustainability through human relationships.

As we build our lives at the Experimental Station, we know that we cannot disconnect from the city around us. Though we seek some level of autonomy, we find it crucial that the space we create welcome people with diverse interests, experiences and viewpoints. Unlike back-to-the-landers and autonomist movements of previous eras, we are attempting to strike a balance and so we are building a business. We are a café in part because this is the kind of space in which people from a variety of backgrounds gather casually, socially, with the comfort of interacting in a familiar context. Having chosen this route, we find ourselves making decisions on a day-to-day basis about how to engage ethically in the workings of capitalism. We are confronted by constant contradictions and dilemmas. If we fail to run an ethical and sustainable business, we snuff out our own flame. But, if we fail to run a financially successful business, we stand no chance of developing Backstory as the social and cultural resource we intend it to be.

As a social center, Backstory is still very much a work in progress. With a school next door we’ve naturally begun to develop friendships with young people from the neighborhood. Our Food Workscooking classes and Arts & Crafts Club establish Backstory as a space that is safe and welcoming for local youth, while providing opportunities for our young friends to develop skills and explore their interests. Weekly play dates create a family-friendly environment for parents with younger children. Our monthly Supper Club provokes discussion about important issues while participants share in an intimate family-style meal. In its fifth month, Supper Club has an avid following, and repeat participants are getting to know each other better with each meal. We also host periodic film screenings, music events, game nights and topic-specific presentations. We hope to expand our programs as our capacity allows, and ultimately, to become a hub of activity on the South Side.

The business side of Backstory is also a continual evolution. None of us are experienced businesswomen and we wonder daily if we are crazy to believe that this could work… Can we really operate a for-profit business in service of the common good? Can we forgo a modicum of efficiency in order to make food that is fresh, healthy and delicious for those very reasons—and stay afloat? Are there enough hours in the day to prioritize the development of our personal relationships and still keep the business on track, without exploiting our labor hours and making our own financial lives unmanageable? Can we create an accountable and committed staff without employing a conventionally hierarchical approach to management, despite the fact that many who’ve worked in the world of conventional business have no experience with accountability outside the top-down model?

All this is yet to be seen… but evidence is on our side, as even in our fledgling state, we enter an era of economic crisis with a sense of growing support and possibility. We welcome others to join us in this experiment. We’re particularly eager to meet other South Siders interested in helping us to develop programming and events. So, please come check us out and let us know if you want to get involved! ◊

Visit us at: 6100 S. Blackstone Avenue

or online at:

or contact us at:, 773.324.9987

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