You’ll soon be able to get a cup of great coffee in a new shop on Dempster Street. The beans are up from Congregation Coffee in New Orleans, the same roaster that provides the beverage to famous Crescent City restaurants like Brennan’s.
But please, don’t call the new Dempster Street business, Comfort Desserts Reimagined, a coffee shop.
“We are not a coffee shop,” says owner Harrith Razaa. “We are a bakery that also has coffee.”
Not that Razaa is against somebody dropping in for a quality cup. But the name, Custom Desserts Reimagined, should give you a hint of the major theme.
Razaa says he’s been “home baking for 35 years.” Following retirement from a career in both social services and information technology, Razaa is about to start selling what he bakes: pies, cakes, and 28 types of bread pudding. That’s right, 28. With special bread baked for each pudding.
“This is my dream,” he says. “This is what I was born to do.”
Custom Desserts is in the former French Kiss sandwich shop at 517 Dempster St. And it’s across the street from a coffee shop that closed not long ago, a small outpost of the vast Starbucks empire.
“I would welcome a Starbucks” coming back, Razaa says. It’s not direct competition for his specialty, baking, but it would bring additional foot traffic to the neighborhood.
Being a neighborhood store is critical for a place like Custom Desserts. “We want to remember people’s names,” Razaa says. “If you want to be a neighborhood place you want to be part of the neighborhood.”
In another neighborhood, Downtown, one coffee shop is also about to open and another is changing what it sells.
Dollop coffee, a Chicago-based group, will open at 1508 Sherman Ave. in the Albion apartment building. Dollop already has an Evanston presence in the Main Dempster Mile where it shares space with Hoosier Mama Pie Company.
Caitlin Boniface, sales consultant at the Albion, says the new coffee shop will go on the first floor on the northern end of the building, which is set aside for retail. The plans are up for review by the city’s Design and Project Review Committee next Wednesday. Opening, Boniface says, is tentatively set for July.
But up the block and across the street, Backlot Coffee will soon become Backlot Home, specializing in art, plants, and antiques. Employee Molly Seeland says the coffee shop will close on May 30, but rather than disappearing, Backlot will then transition to a new model, with the same owner.
The other Backlot Coffee in Evanston, on Central Street, will remain as is.
One question, particularly in a pandemic, is whether there are simply too many coffee shops, or specialty shops which also sell quality coffee.
For example, within one square block downtown, bounded by Chicago Avenue, Davis Street, Orrington, and Church, there are four coffee shops: Peet’s, Patisserie Coralie, Newport, and Collectivo. A Starbucks is not far, nor is the soon-to-be Dollop. Backlot is changing, and also not far away, the Unicorn Cafe is now closed.
Katherine Gotsick, executive director for the Main/Dempster Mile marketing organization, says it may “feel like saturation” with so many coffee shops in town, but there is still room for businesses that know the market.
For example, Gotsick says Bagel Art, in the MDM district, is a “genius” at catering. “If the bricks and mortar business went away they would still have business.”
Opening a store during a pandemic is a challenge, to say the least. Razaa was well aware of that, but decided to move forward anyway.
“This will not last forever,” he says of the pandemic. “When people come out, they’ll want to go out for a walk,” and perhaps, get a piece of pie.
Gotsick says there has actually been an increase in public support for local businesses as a result of the pandemic, which should help places like Custom Desserts Reimagined.
Razaa expects to open next weekend, but at age 70, he figures on running the shop a couple of years at best. As a Black man, Razaa says he would like to find someone younger, preferably but not necessarily a woman of color, “who has a different take and can take the store to the next level.”
Whomever ends up running Custom Desserts down the road, they will have to possess the same philosophy as its’ founder. Low prices. Free fruit cups for children. And a welcoming attitude.
“We’re in the happiness business,” he says.