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Milwaukee's coffee and cocktail outposts are moving into the Chicago market.

What happens when a beverage business has aced the Milwaukee market and wants to expand even further? Chicago, it seems, is the answer for three boutique-sized hospitality companies with roots in the 414 area-code.

This recent migration to Chicago began with Safe House, the spy-themed bar and eatery that’s been a staple in downtown Milwaukee since 1966 (yes, that’s half a century ago, proof that a good restaurant concept has lasting appeal). In March, SafeHouse Chicago opened in the city’s River North area, not far from Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, a New York City import that popped up in 2014.

Moving south to Chicago seemed like a logical next step for Stone Creek Coffee, too. After all, the coffee roaster had already swept through the Milwaukee market and opened a Madison café along bustling East Washington Avenue on the city’s east side last fall. In the spring of 2018 Stone Creek Coffee will open its first Chicago café, in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood north of downtown. It will be right on West Belmont Avenue near the “L” stop.

Why Chicago? For Stone Creek Coffee co-owners Melissa Perez (also the roaster’s digital-experience director) and Eric Resch, it came down to data-driven research and pure intuition.

“We are super data geeks,” says Perez, who terms this juncture in the coffee roaster’s journey “learning mode,” not “expansion mode.” She discovered there are at least 450 Starbucks cafes in the Chicago area, leaving room for indie cafes to open but also proof that Chicagoans like their java. “Cafes are very neighborhood-centric, especially in Chicago,” says Perez. Lakeview is no exception, populated by restaurants, cafes, bakeries, diners and boutiques.

Intuition guided the expansion, too. “Eric and I had been talking about Chicago for a while now. It’s a place that we go to frequently and love,” says Perez. “We’re planning at least three cafes in the next three years in Chicago, and the same amount in Madison.”

That Chicago is only a 90-minute drive from Stone Creek Coffee’s Factory in downtown Milwaukee (where its beans are roasted) is convenient. A coffee lab will also open in Chicago, joining existing Madison and Milwaukee locations. This is available to wholesale customers and Stone Creek Coffee’s employees.

Colectivo Coffee Roasters' Chicago cafe

Photo by Colectivo Coffee Roasters

Colectivo Coffee Roasters debuted its first Chicago café last month on the city’s North Side, in a former Einstein Bros. Bagels location. Spanning 1,800 square feet, the café’s got a patio much like its Milwaukee siblings (read: huge; in this case, 2,800 square feet). A custom steel-and-zinc awning is paired with a fire pit, landscaping and umbrellas. Tucked into the heart of the trendy neighborhood on North Clark Avenue, its neighbors are Lincoln Park (two blocks to the east), where the Lincoln Park Zoo and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are. Next up? A Colectivo café in Logan Square, another North Side neighborhood, just west of Lincoln Park.

What’s next for the Milwaukee diaspora? Will Bel Air Cantina head south of the border, too? How about Camp Bar? Pizza Man? All three of these businesses have already moved west into Wauwatosa. Or is Madison next?

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