Laurene Hynson

Sweet Maple Café

04/17/2015

Laurene Hynson is the owner of Sweet Maple Café in Little Italy/University Village.

How did you end up owning a successful breakfast restaurant?

Sweet Maple Café happened quite by happenstance. I wasn’t looking for a restaurant when I found it; I was actually looking for investment property. On that particular day in 1999 I didn’t find anything I was interested in, but my realtor indicated that this space down the street was available. So we walked down the street, took a look at it, and I thought it had some potential for a restaurant. So I put $500 down as a hold on the space.

I had a one year lease. The owner of the property was Annette Mategrano, she owned Scafuri Bakery next door. At one time she had owned several restaurants on the street, but by the time that I opened she was in her 80s and it was getting to be too much for her. She had rented this space to someone who skipped out on the lease. And when I saw the space it was pretty dismal, there was just a package of Roman Meal bread on a table.

It was a great deal for me. This is the original furniture, she left all of the equipment in the kitchen, I even had the plates and the flatware. Everything was here for me, so I just did a little cosmetic work. It was easier to make the place look older than it was, instead of spending a lot of money making it look new. I hired a starving-artist type and he did the faux painting on the walls. People think of it as peeling paint, but really I paid for this! There wasn’t a lot of capital investment for me coming in.

And here I am, almost sixteen years later.

What did you do before you became a restaurateur?

I worked for years in corporate America, sales and marketing and some other things. At the time, I was at home taking care of my children; I was a stay-at-home mom. My daughter was three and my son was six. I was doing that, and a little real estate rehabbing, so I was looking for a project. The restaurant opportunity presented itself on that day, and here I am.

What makes Sweet Maple Café stand out from other breakfast places?

My meals are prepared from scratch. We don't have powdered eggs. We're cracking eggs, we're chopping vegetables. Everything is fresh. And every order is prepared to order. That requires a lot of detail. I like to say: I want people to feel like someone who loves them made them breakfast. One of the benefits of having very stable staff is they know what customers like. Everything is right in front. The kitchen is not off in the back somewhere; my guys can look out in the dining room and know who's sitting out there. They know that table three likes their eggs a particular way. There's a level of intimacy that we're able to achieve because we have such consistent staff, and because our patrons are so consistent. The people that eat here, some of them eat every day. It just works for us.

Yeah, I don't do a lot of trendy stuff. I try to do homestyle breakfast that people can eat everyday. My menu is broad enough and the selection is varied enough that that you can eat something different and still enjoy it on a regular basis.

You’ve met with a lot of success. Why do you think that is?

I think I offered the right product at the right time. This community has been in transition for some period of years, and I’ve been a part of that change. My husband and I have lived in the area for about twenty-five years. We live in Tri-Taylor, a little bit farther west. We’ve seen a lot of change over the years; we’ve seen them tear down the projects that were across the street and there’s been a lot of real estate development.

I sit here between UIC and the hospital complex, so there’s a lot of traffic into the community on a daily basis. So many people are coming in to work, or to school, or to the hospital. It’s been a great location for me, and I think that I’ve offered an environment and a venue and an experience that people really enjoy.

Little Italy seems like a misnomer at at this point.

Now they don’t even call it Little Italy anymore, it’s University Village, which is probably more appropriate at this stage. It’s a very interesting little pocket.

Opening the restaurant: what did you find really enjoyable, and what did you find frustrating?

It was interesting because I didn’t have a background in restaurants at all. I’d never worked in a restaurant. When I opened I did have a partner who had some experience with a café, and that was helpful. But I looked at it not with the eyes of a restaurateur but from the point of view of the guest. Though I’d never owned a restaurant, I had certainly eaten at many restaurants. I wanted to give people the kind of experience that I had enjoyed. I write the recipes for the restaurant. I’m a home cook, I’ve cooked since I was a child. It was like opening my home every day for this party. I've always looked at it that way, and that’s worked for me.

Staffing can be a problem at times, but many of the employes that I have now I've had since the beginning back in 1999 and 2000. The guys in the kitchen, some of them have been with me since we opened, and a lot of the servers started as teenagers. They were students at UIC and now they're married with children. They have full time jobs elsewhere, but they still come back two or three times a month to see each other because they grew up in the restaurant.

It's a family in the restaurant, and the customers are included in that. They've been dining at Sweet Maple Café since I opened. I've watched their kids grow up, and some of them have come to work at the restaurant. It's been a great experience, it really has.

How has the experience changed for you over time?

Everyday is a new day. The biggest difference I've seen: when I first opened there wasn't a lot of social media. I didn't have a website until 2009. I've always had media in the restaurant, critics and writers from various publications. I always tell my servers: you never know, this person could be from the Tribune, they could be from the Sun-Times. Now it's all social media. It's Yelp, it's Facebook. Now I tell them: okay, don't do anything that you wouldn't want everyone who has internet access to see. [laughs]

For the consumer to have that much power is very different; it puts more pressure on us to make sure that we’re performing all the time, because everybody has an equal voice.

Are all of your customers worthy critics?

When people are critical, they are often making a good point. There's a value in people having that voice, being able to look at it from someone else's perspective. We always ask people: how are you enjoying your meal? What I've learned is that not all people are comfortable telling me or the server: I didn’t really like this. For some reason they are more comfortable going on social media. But I want to hear it, and I take it to heart.

I also understand that people look at the same thing and see something different. Some people will walk in and see the worn look as charming. Kind of cozy: oh, I love this. Other people will look at it and think: this is old and run-down! It depends on what you bring across the threshold. As an observer of people, it’s been interesting to see that.

Any desire to see your children run the place at some point?

I really don’t see that. Neither of my children are interested. My daughter is at Stanford, and my son just graduated from Stanford back in June. He’s here in Chicago, working for a management consulting firm. I don’t see either of them carrying the business forward, they have their things that they want to do, and that’s fine with me.

They don’t want me to sell the business; anytime I mention anything like that, they become very upset because they like the fact that I have this place, but they don’t want to run it. [laughs]

This is Mom’s thing. And that’s cool.

Is this restaurant your legacy?

After my children, without a doubt this is my legacy. The people that we've touched, the people that have been influenced by what we try to do. I’m proud of it. I've loved every day of this. And what’s nice is in over fifteen years, I really haven't done anything that I didn't want to do. Sweet Maple is a reflection of me. For better or worse, you know. Whatever that means to whoever is looking at it. It’s me.

Sweet Maple brings together so many different people. It’s an extremely diverse environment. Ages, ethnic backgrounds, racial backgrounds, everybody comes together. Many people comment that you don’t see this in many places around Chicago. I don’t know necessarily why this is. Maybe it’s the location--I think that’s part of it, but there are many other restaurants on the street that don’t have the same level of diversity that we do. Perhaps it’s my staff, because my staff is very diverse. Anytime a customer comes in they can see somebody in the restaurant like them.

A community spirit has been built here, and I really hold that dear. It means a lot to me that my employees, who have come from so many different backgrounds, are like family. They spend so much time together. And they don’t have to--- they chose to. I think that’s a very hopeful sign.

Do you ever see yourself opening up additional restaurants?

No, I’m too old for that. Were I twenty years younger, maybe. But that’s a young person’s endeavor. This location is fine. I’m not making all the money in the world, but that’s okay. I’m happy. I’ve been approached many times about expanding, doing different locations. [shakes head] No, I’m fine.

My next thing is packaging my mixes: I have biscuit mix and buttermilk pancake mix. I haven’t promoted it at all yet, but that’s my next phase, when my kids are grown and off on their own.

Are you from Chicago originally?

I am from Chicago, born and reared. I grew up in West Chatham, I went to the Latin School of Chicago. The only time I’ve been away from Chicago for any length of time is when I was away in school. I am also a Stanford graduate, my degree is in economics.

You never felt like staying in Palo Alto?

I really didn't want to stay in California. It just wasn’t real, you know? I like a change of seasons, I like a little adversity. So I came back, and I’ve not regretted that decision. I had the corporate career and that was fine. But after I had my second child, I left. I can enjoy anything, I grow where I’m planted. I had a great time, but I felt like I had a little more that I could do. I built this business around the life that I wanted.

It was a place my kids could come to--- it’s a family restaurant. My kids literally grew up eating here and for them it was like I didn’t work, because I would pick them up after the restaurant closed. I had it timed so I could meet the school bus at three o’clock.

I have lifelong friends here in Chicago, and I like to spend a lot of time with them. I do a lot of dancing, I love taking dance classes. I used to run, but I gave that up. I decided if I wanted to continue walking, I needed to stop running. [laughs] I have a normal life. Nothing exciting.

Any last thoughts?

I hope that I inspire someone to follow their passion, to create the life that they want for themselves. This is what I wanted for myself. I wasn’t out to conquer the world, or have a thousand restaurants. I’m sure a lot of people will find it curious. Maybe my horizons aren’t broad enough, but I like my life. Everything is good.

Sweet Maple Café

Sweet Maple Café

www.sweetmaplecafe.com

1339 West Taylor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60607

312.243.8908

laurene@sweetmaplecafe.com


Interviewed by Vincent Labriola and Emily Torem

Photos by Vincent Labriola

Colored by Peilin Tan