EC restaurant on track after bumpy start
By Michelle L. Quinn Post-Tribune correspondent January 5, 2013 9:00PM
Erica Hernandez, co-owner, and Hector Guerrero, executive chef and co-owner, are photographed at the Indy Cafe in East Chicago, Ind. Thursday January 3, 2012. The cafe, which serves hand-roasted Bridgeport Coffee Company coffee, will be celebrating its one-year anniversary with a party February 1. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Indy Cafe, 5654 Indianapolis Blvd., East Chicago, is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 378-1878 or log on at www.facebook.com/pages/Indy-Cafe/346123515411322
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:44AM
EAST CHICAGO — Erica Hernandez manned the Indy Cafe kitchen herself for much of Thursday while her partner, Hector Guerrero, took care of the errands.
It made for a hectic lunchtime, but between running the small year-old restaurant across from the South Shore commuter train’s East Chicago stop and making all of the food — from bread to meat and everything in between — from scratch, the couple’s day-to-day personal errands are left by the wayside more often than not. Had business gone gangbusters from the start, neither knows how they’d ever get anything done outside of the cafe.
Instead, after a start that might make any entrepreneurs lose their nerve, growth has been steady for the couple since they opened in February.
“If we’d have been as busy starting out as we are now, I’d have looked back and wished the growth was more controlled. But we’ve been building momentum through word-of-mouth, and that’s perfect,” Hernandez, 26, said.
When Hernandez’s father bought the building prior to 2008, it was planned to be a muffler shop, but the family decided to allow a Puerto Rican restaurant to move in. That restaurant lasted a year, so with the place’s proximity to the train stop, Hernandez’ sister-in-law floated the idea of a coffee shop. They remodeled and opened in 2009.
It lasted a month.
“We decided if we were going to do it, it needed to be coffee and food,” she said. “We already had the hood system in place (from the Puerto Rican restaurant), so the family started buying other restaurant equipment as we could.”
Around that time, Hernandez met and started dating Guerrero, a sous chef and kitchen manager at Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two, owned by the world-famous, southern-cooking chef, Art Smith. The two talked about starting the cafe, but with his job and Hernandez managing her father’s tire shop up the street after he died in 2010, the idea stayed on hold.
As much as he loved working for Table Fifty-Two — he still travels with Smith when the chef is asked to cater big events — the idea of running his own gig kept calling, Guerrero, 28, said.
“The fact that I could do my own food did it,” he said. “I’d spent five years there, and Erica was in need, so it was time to venture off.”
Of course, he did try to work both jobs for a bit because he thought he could. That didn’t last long.
“It was brutal,” he said.
More brutal, at least to Hernandez, were the customers, who didn’t seem to care about the organic vegetables, Amish chickens and bread-from-scratch Guerrero prides himself on using.
“When we opened, people were so negative: The food was too expensive, the coffee was too strong,” she said. “But there were a few customers who did stick with us, and they really appreciated what we’re trying to do. From there, it’s been word-of-mouth.”
As Guerrero continues to reconstruct classic dishes into his own with a Mexican influence or trying to make his kitchen more efficient, the two are excited about where the restaurant takes them. At this point, nothing — not even the expected Nine-Span Bridge closure – could stop them.
“People will travel for good food, and those are the people we’re trying to attract,” Guerrero said. “The love is in the details.”