Logan Square is a vibrant neighborhood, full of energetic, artisanal businesses all up and down the Milwaukee corridor and down Diversey, Kimball and Kedzie. We’ve had our own movie theatre; bookstores; numerous restaurants, shops and coffee houses; and new and used clothing stores, salons, barber shops and specialty shops — all here in one compact 10-block radius. The vibrant hope expressed in creating all these new Logan Square businesses and the distinct multitudes of flavors, sights and sounds that came with them made our neighborhood a destination. From empty storefronts and a down-at-the-heels feeling back in 2007, Logan Square emerged alive, well and radiant by 2018. Transformed completely.
But then came the pandemic.
Logan Square, like many neighborhoods and cities, now faces an extraordinary challenge. The exhilaration we felt just walking down the street has been eroded. In March 2020, lockdown spread across the country. Then, later in the spring and summer, tentative reemergence. Nothing is the same, though. Lives have changed forever.
I am profiling three of the many artisanal small businesses that have graced our streets in Logan Square and how they’ve held up against this year’s challenges. I do not have room to include all the many wonderful businesses that are still here, some struggling and the ones who, sadly, have closed their doors. Their stories are important. But these three stories are indicative of a much larger and more important story about how important our shops, stores and restaurants are to our everyday lives and well-being. They are the lifeblood of a neighborhood like ours and of our city at large. We are witnessing a big shift for businesses all over the country and the world.
Lula Cafe: An Icon and Pioneer
2537 N. Kedzie Blvd.
Open for takeout only
Thursday-Sunday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m., 5 p.m.-7 p.m.
When Jason Hammel and his partner and wife, Leah Childs, opened Lula Cafe in 1999, Logan Square looked and felt nothing like it does today. Right now, the cafe is open for takeout only, with no inside service or patio dining until further notice. Lula’s website still provides the inimitable and brilliant menu we have come to love, and customers can order ahead for pick-up or come up to the window at the restaurant to order and wait.
As Hammel told me during our chat outside Lula on a lovely fall day, “We can’t plan for more than tomorrow. Everybody has their own financial situation, and none of us can make decisions for others. The main thing is that health considerations come first.”
He said that because of the flexibility of his landlord, he is able to keep things going and plans to ride out the current limitations. Anyone who orders Lula’s wonderful farm dinner, now available for takeout Thursday through Sunday, is grateful the cafe’s kept going. When I ordered it, it was scrumptious, original, creative and gorgeous! Brunch, lunch and dinners are also available via online order, phone or at the window.
Lula started as a little cafe and grew into a world-class restaurant as it evolved over 21 years. Hammel, not a trained chef, learned “on the job” and quickly saw the rise of local farmers and farmers markets. He and Childs realized that bringing fresh, home-grown farm food to the table would be not only healthy, but also innovative and creative, connecting people to the food they eat and where and how it is grown. The cafe pioneered the concept of farm-to-table long before it became a meme. Lula’s menu grew over the years, as Hammel and a group of creative, self-taught chefs originated a fresh menu with influences from a variety of cuisines and “a willingness to cook against categorization,” Hammel said.
With Lula’s development as an inspired dining experience, coupled with its cafe bohemia atmosphere and community support through art, conversation and food, the cafe became an icon not just for Logan Square but for the world. Lula Cafe is a restaurant known widely for its artisanal cooking, catering and service and has been featured in NPR’s “This American Life,” in The New York Times, Food & Wine magazine, Bon Appetit magazine, and local Chicago press. Lula has been named an LTH Forum Great Neighborhood Restaurant, a Michelin Bib Gourmand and a Jean Banchet Best Neighborhood Restaurant. The cafe is also a proud member of the Chicago Eater Essential 38.
The owners’ goal was to make Lula a destination for people to come together in a bistro atmosphere in all kinds of occasions. You can sit at the bar, read a book have a great breakfast or lunch, and talk to the incredible waitstaff. You can hang out at a table alone or with friends or enjoy the weekends in spring, summer and fall when people spill out onto the patio to drink great wine and eat amazing food on the square. From burritos to artisanal dinners curated and designed by Hammel and his kitchen, Lula has something for everyone. Ever since I came to Logan Square, in 2008, I have not seen a single weekend in which people were not lined up outside the door and around the block to eat brunch at Lula. I started going when I moved here and have relied on them to give me the atmosphere, incredible food and wonderful opportunities for communing with others that we have all come to expect.
Hammel said he is optimistic but also a realist. He said he knows first-hand how hard it is for restaurants to survive. He and Childs had a dream to create a beautiful, delicious and welcoming space, a multicultural experience that satisfies the needs of a wide variety of people. They have done this with great success. But Hammel told me that as a member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a trade group formed during the pandemic to lobby for restaurants, he sees the staggering number of restaurant closures nationwide. The same story of closures is being repeated all across the country. Four out of five Independent restaurants could close by the end of 2020. Hammel knows this reality and, while hopeful, he said recognizes just how hard it is for our indy restaurants to endure.
Logan residents are lucky and should be proud to have Lula Cafe in the neighborhood. I have confidence that Hammel, Childs and the wonderful people who work with them at Lula Café will not have the restaurant not only alive but thriving when our world opens up again.
Buzz Coffee Roaster & Baker: Design Ambience Meets Great Coffee
2779 N .Milwaukee Ave.
Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Open for takeout only.
4200 W. Diversey Ave. This location is not open to the public.
Buzz Coffee Roaster & Baker’s cafe is one gorgeous place to sit all day and have a coffee, get some work done, or just hang out and do your own thing. It doesn’t hurt that Buzz’s own roasted coffee is among the best-tasting brews in Chicago. Recently, before the pandemic hit, Buzz added delicious salads, baked goods and sandwiches to the menu. Unfortunately, the ability to hang out in one beautiful spot and eat and drink delicious fare at Buzz vanished with the virus. Along with so many other small businesses, Buzz was closed during the lockdown. They reopened June 2, for takeout only.
Owner and proprietor Agnes Otworowski, along with her partner in life and business, Stefan Hersh, opened their original location, at 1644 N. Damen Ave., in Wicker Park, in 2010. (Buzz left Wicker Park for Logan Square in 2017.) Hersh said he always wanted a coffee shop, but it was Otworowski, with her amazing, positive outlook and boundless dynamism who had the energy to run it. Just before the pandemic hit, she developed a small cafe menu of artisanal baked goods and salads. Unfortunately, that all had to be shut down. She is selling a small number of her baked goods again, and they are delicious.
In 2017, Otworowski brought Buzz to Logan Square. After a somewhat slow opening in our neighborhood, she said, things picked up considerably. I think the ambience of the place plus the delicious home-roasted coffee were the draw; it is the most comfortable and beautiful place to work, write, commune with friends and watch the world outside through the large picture windows.
Since the pandemic hit, Otworowski has put the safety of people first before profits, she siad. “I don’t want to get sick or make other people sick.” She reluctantly had to shut the shop down for everything but takeout. She told me, however, that running as a takeout affair is not sustainable in the long run. Their lease runs through July 2022 and they plan to stay open until then.*
The stimulus grant went straight away toward their rent, and taking out a loan is not an option, Otworowski said. She went from five employees to just herself. One of her former employees is back now.
Buzz owner Agnes Otworowski. Photo: Allison Fine
As I write this, I am getting my coffee from Buzz, sitting at the little table out in front, right on the corner of Milwaukee and Diversey, watching the traffic go by and listening to the sounds of a high rise going up next door.
Same Day Cafe
2651 N. Kedzie Ave.
Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Open for takeout only.
These days, Will von Hartz, owner and sole proprietor of Same Day Cafe, is running the business remotely by text and phone with his incredible, and incredibly young manager, Alex Ryan. At only 28, Ryan is pretty much keeping things running at Same Day, keeping the cafe’s unique take on comfort food and marvelous sodas and desserts going, along with an inventive dinner menu. Same Day introduced a wonderful line of brand-new pastries made in house. Breakfast is always a delight at Same Day, where you can sit surrounded by fun, friendly people, listening to vintage music. Same Day opened in 2015 and has been a popular place to hang out, meet friends or enjoy a great meal on your own ever since. I’ve been a regular there since it opened.
Pickup, online and window ordering are keeping things running at Same Day. Von Harz is back home in New York caring for his parents. Because he owns the space Same Day occupies, he is confident that they can ride things out until it is safe to dine indoors, he said. He’d already planned to ramp up the takeaway option before the pandemic hit; however, he said he never anticipated that this would be the only option for a while.
The in-house chefs are still there, cooking up a modified version of their great menu, including breakfast specials; incredible sandwiches, including the corned-beef Reuben; side salads, cookies and drinks; and a variety of house-made fountain sodas with incredible flavors. There are family-style meals and grocery items as well. Same Day is a wonderful place to get your meals often, especially now during this pandemic season.
The great story behind Same Day is that von Hartz, like Hammel, is a self-taught chef with an incredible eye and sense of taste for putting great food on the table. He began his cooking odyssey at The Flip Side, a small place inside of an Italian Ice shop that closed during the winter. During the cold season, Will cooked, learned and taught himself, developing recipes and ideas that eventually became the genesis of Same Day.
Same Day owner Will von Hartz. Photo: Jamie Davis
Same Day, like Buzz Café and Lula Café are three of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of small businesses all around our country, brought about through the imagination, hard work and inventiveness of their owners who had an idea and brought it to fruition. In the city of Chicago, in the neighborhood of Logan Square, our small-restaurant owners and other business owners are struggling to survive during a most unusual time in American history. We applaud not only their success and their effort, but hopefully, also their ability to survive a difficult and challenging time.
Featured photo: Allison Fine
*This article originally listed the incorrect date for the end of this lease. It runs through July 2022.