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Winston’s Internet Café is getting buzz [2 June, 2010]

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At first glance, Winston’s Internet Café is a coffeehouse like many others.  Filled with comfortable leather armchairs and sofas and nooks where customers might browse the internet or catch up with friends, the place offers the kind of public solitude that is a hallmark of café culture.  In one corner, two computers offer free access to customers.  A long L-shaped bar is made of concrete, and both it and the dark wood cabinets gleam softly under the care of owner Jim Stephens, a long-time carpenter who made all the woodwork himself.

A closer look reveals the kind of details rarely found in your average neighborhood café.  Most establishments of its type take pains to appear cheerfully haphazard, with their collections of dumpster-dive and garage sale furniture carefully arranged to make you feel like you’re in the home of your most lovable eccentric aunt.  But the furniture in Winston’s is both new and carefully coordinated.  The restrooms are lined with soothing quarry stone tiles—there are no chalkboards inviting your impromptu thoughts here.  There is a back room with another bar.  Finally, the metal ball and chain at the door provide a clue that this establishment has, perhaps, different aspirations than a run-of-the-mill coffeehouse.

Winston’s, named for Stephens’ dog, was originally meant to be the reincarnation of the Chicago Eagle, the leather bar that once existed just a few doors down from the café located on Clark and Argyle.  The Eagle’s owner Chuck Renslow, founder of the International Mr. Leather contest, shut down the bar in 2008.  Stephens had worked at the Eagle for fourteen years as a bartender and manager, and he had always wanted a business of his own.  He also felt strongly that the city needed an Eagle.

Renslow and Stephens bought five store fronts, including Eagle Leathers and Tattoo Parlor and Clark’s on Clark on the corner of Clark and Argyle.  Stephens’s plan was to open the Eagle at that location.  The trouble began at that point.  Stephens learned that Clark’s, which officially closed in 2007, had been operating without a lease.  He began working on renovating the space for the new business and applied for a liquor license in February 2009 but was denied.

It turned out that neighbors had been agitating in the neighborhood to have a license denied on the grounds that Chuck Renslow would be operating the business.  They insisted on this even though, Stephens points out, the business has no ties with Renslow.  Stephens added that the public applications would have made this clear.  According to him, one of them went to some lengths : “He made a notice that he stuck on car windows and doors stating that the guy who’s going to be getting the license is also a previous owner of Chicago Eagle and that he rents to the tattoo parlor, which is involved with gang activity.  Both claims are untrue.” Windy City Timesmade several attempts to contact and speak to the person and/or group who made these claims, but they did not respond.

To complicate matters further, the city had received eight letters of objection.  Stephens put in the legwork and got seven of them to rescind their letters and even had friends and family members write in support.  He applied for a revocation of a revocation but that was also denied.  An additional wrinkle: although Clarks’s had closed in 2007, the city only revoked its license in May 2009.  Under law, a location that has had its license revoked cannot have another for a year and a day after the date of revocation.

In the meantime, Stephens had incurred vast amounts of debt and seen the kind of setbacks that take small business owners by surprise.  At one point, a compressor on the roof was stolen, setting him back by $5,000.  “It’s a struggle to open a new business in the middle of winter in a horrible economy,” says Stephens.  He adds that “most people have a year set aside, of running in the red.”  In his case, it has taken a little over three years and family and friends have chipped in to help.  But he has no plans to give up.  To staunch the flow, he decided to open Winston’s as a 24-hour café, in order to recoup at least some of his expenses and keep things afloat.  He plans to reapply for the liquor license at the end of May.

Winston’s opened to a slow but steady start in November 2009, during a particularly bleak winter.  Recent visits to the café indicate that business is brisk, and the longer days and increasing sunshine appear to have drawn neighborhood people here in good numbers.  The café offers the usual range of caffeinated drinks, and the coffee and sandwiches are made to order.  To his surprise, Stephens has found a new and unexpected clientele—university students from institutions like Northwestern University and Truman College.  Given the rarity of non-liquor 24-hour establishments in the surrounding area (the beloved all-night diner Standee’s, in Edgewater, closed in January), it’s not a surprise that students and neighborhood residents should be happy to have found a place that can serve as a study spot, a pause in bar crawling, or simply a place to find a few hours to read in peace or socialize.  Stephens is hopeful about picking up more grab and go business during the morning rush, which accounts for 75 percent of coffeshop revenue; traditionally, the sit-down business only accounts for 25 percent.

Stephens hasn’t given up on his dream of owning and running the Eagle leather bar, hoping that he might be able to run that and a coffeshop with a tavern license: “I love bartending.  I don’t see myself sitting behind the desk; I’m not an office person.  I’ve spent hours tearing down drywall, replacing the floors, redoing the restrooms.  I wanted a leather bar for people who can appreciate a nice place.  And I want to work at a place where I can be comfortable with who I am.”

Winston’s 24-hour Internet Café is located at 5001 N.  Clark; 773-728-0050.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 2 June, 2010

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