Category Archives: Around Chicago

The Chicago Coffee Shop Report: Where to Work Summer 2014 Edition

photo (1)As a freelancer, the number one question I’m asked is whether or not I get stir crazy working from home. Funny enough, I tend to get cabin fever in the summer not the winter. In the winter, I’m more than happy to avoid a snowy commute and cold temps, but in the summer I want to get out there and join the world. Because of that, I’ve been frequenting coffee shops often lately. Just like the Eater 38 (an updated list of the best restaurants in the city), I want to compose a quarterly list of the best places for freelancers to work from in Chicago. If you know of any great places to work from in Chicago that meet the strict requirements, let me know! I’d love to check them out!

When I go to a coffee shop, I expect a beautiful place where I can do good work. I want to avoid coffee shop disasters. As always, here’s what I’m looking for:

  • Free wi-fi
  • Plentiful outlets
  • Food made in-house
  • Good music
  • Great ambiance
  • Comfortable seating

1. Buzz Killer Espresso (Wicker Park)
Despite the two-hour wi-fi limit (I just grab multiple wi-fi cards from the counter… shhh…) and the fact that there’s no food (I sneak in my own and sit upstairs… shhh…), the lighting in this place can’t be beat. My favorite place to sit is in the upstairs booths — each table has a plug and there’s a bathroom just a few steps away. I love that they leave the windows open so it’s never freezing. There’s also a small outdoor patio overlooking Damen. Oh, and the iced coffee is addicting.

2. Bourgeois Pig (Lincoln Park)
This is a new find for me so now I’m obsessed. It’s an incredibly overpriced sandwich shop (with dishes named after literary characters) on one side, a coffee shop on the other, and it’s all built into an old house with cozy nooks and rooms. I love the upstairs seating on the coffee side and the weird portraits hanging from the wall. Apparently the owner lives above the sandwich side. Old school jazz plays all day and it’s amazing. No limit on the wi-fi despite what the Yelp reviews say. Small outdoor patio.

3. Filter (Wicker Park)
An old reliable. There is a full working kitchen here with legit breakfast and lunch options plus tons of vintage couches, seats, and tables plus plenty of outlets. Filter always has a laid back vibe and there’s no limit on the free wifi. You’ll never be disappointed here — unless you want to sit outside because there is no outdoor seating. Cash only but you can also pay with the Level Up app, which hooks up to your credit card.

4. Heritage Bicycles General Store (Lakeview)
This place is like hipster catnip. Bike store + coffee shop = awesome atmosphere. It feels like a real neighborhood joint where everyone knows each other. I mean, the owner lives upstairs with his family for the love of god. His kid rode through the shop on a little scooter to say goodbye to his dad, which was the cutest thing ever. There aren’t a ton of seats and you’ll likely sit on a stool at a communal table, which could get uncomfortable for extended periods of time. There’s also a small seating area outside overlooking North Lincoln.

5. Alliance Bakery (Wicker Park)
Another neighborhood favorite. Pick up a delish croissant or cronut and iced coffee then head next door to their wifi outpost or sit outside on the patio. The seating area is nothing fancy but it’s quiet and charming and looks onto Division. Because it’s detached from the bakery, you don’t have to listen to loud espresso machines.

In the running:
Lovely: A Bake Shop (Noble Square): Great light, delish food.
Big Shoulders (Noble Square): Decent atmosphere.
The Wormhole (Wicker Park): A little too cool for school.
Dollop (River East): Super tall ceilings, lots of light.
Floriole (Lincoln Park): When the huge front windows are open, it’s great.
Gaslight Coffee Roasters (Logan Square): Seating options aren’t great.
Letizia’s Natural Bakery (Wicker Park): Great food, patio in back.
A Baker’s Tale (Ukrainian Village): Cute place.

Places I want to check out soon:
The Winchester (Ukrainian Village): Open all day, free wifi.
Mindy’s Hot Chocolate (Bucktown): New breakfast service with wi-fi coming soon.
Elaine’s Coffee Call (Lincoln Park): No wifi unless you’re a Hotel Lincoln guest.
Puck’s at Museum of Contemporary Art: Don’t need to pay museum admission.

Non-Coffee Shops with Free Wi-Fi:
Harold Washington Library (South Loop): I love working from the Winter Garden.
Chicago Cultural Center (Loop): Need to test this one out one more time.
Cafecito (South Loop): Best cuban sandwich ever, next to a hostel so there’s always an interesting crowd.
Little Goat (West Loop): I effing love this place and there’s a rooftop now.

The Blacklist:
All Intelligentsia Coffee Shops: I love your coffee, but you have no outlets and terrible seating.
La Colombe Coffee — it’s beautiful but there’s no wifi or food. But there is bubbly water on tap.

Illustration by me, on the Paper app. 

Coffee Shop Disasters and How to Survive Them

DSC_1606Part of the appeal of the freelance life is imagining yourself working happily from a beautiful coffee shop in Paris while you sip a cappuccino and nibble on a croissant on the sunny sidewalk patio of a tree-lined street bustling with interesting people. This does not happen. More often than not you’ll find yourself in a dirty coffee shop with slow wifi, no outlets, and an incredibly annoying New Yorker talking loudly on their phone.

I seek out coffee shops and do extensive research whenever I travel. Finding that one magical coffee shop from which you can work from for a morning or afternoon is HARD. Almost impossible. Why? Well, here are just some of the unforeseen issues and distractions I’ve had to overcome when trying to work from a coffee shop:

  • no food
  • 1 hour parking
  • flies
  • too cold
  • too hot
  • loud, terrible music
  • incredibly slow wifi that disconnects
  • wifi that’s free for only 2 hours
  • no wifi (to encourage CONVERSATION)
  • loud talkers
  • crying babies
  • gossiping mothers
  • crazy people who talk to themselves
  • overpriced drinks
  • no open tables
  • dirty tables
  • extremely uncomfortable chairs
  • assholes on their cellphones
  • extremely loud espresso machines
  • a friendly old man who wants to talk your face off
  • no bathroom (I’m not kidding)

Basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can work from a coffee shop for two to three hours and no longer. I also have to bring a back up plan. For example, my iPad so that if my laptop dies because I couldn’t find a plug at least I can respond to some email. Or a Kindle, so if the wifi is terrible I can read a book on writing and still feel like I accomplished some work today. Or a snack so that when I’m starving, I can eat something besides my arm.

If you live in surburbia — and I know there are some exceptions, at least I hope — you likely don’t have a local coffee shop except the green mermaid or [insert another national chain here]. It’s pretty safe to say that these places are totally uninspiring. Oh, but your Starbucks has an outdoor patio? Does it overlook the gas station or the grocery store parking lot? Exactly.

This is why I praise the home office. If you’re serious about being a freelancer of any kind or a solopreneur you need an inspiring home office with reliable wifi, a comfortable traditional desk with an ergonomic chair or a standing desk with an anti-fatigue mat, and good lighting. Coworking spaces are an incredible option, but they can be expensive and unless you live in a big city, it’s unlikely you even have this option.

I feel so lucky to have a home office and live in a city that is bursting with local coffee shops in unique spaces with great drinks, free wifi, and outlets. I frequent these kinds of coffee shops occasionally for a change of scenery and to get some exercise. (It’s impossible to reach 10,000 steps per day when you work from home. Thanks for the kick in the ass, FitBit Flex.) But let me reiterate that I’ve done extensive research via Yelp, Google, and in-person visits regarding which coffee shops are worth my time. Here is my extremely short list of shops I’ll work from in Chicago:

  • Filter Cafe on Milwaukee
  • Alliance Bakery on Division
  • Buzz Killer Espresso on Damen
  • Heritage Bicycles General Store on N. Lincoln

That’s it. Trust me, I’ve tried a lot of them all over the city. There are a couple more that *might* eventually make it onto my list like Big Shoulders on Chicago and Lovely: A Bake Shop on Milwaukee, but right now the list of tried-and-true coffee shops is firm at these four. I’m hoping to grow my list eventually, but that means many more mornings spent with uncomfortable chairs, slow wifi, bad music… you get the picture. For now, you can find me at my home office.

P.S. Speaking of pictures, I took that above photo in Salzburg, Austria not Paris.