Smile Politely

Cafe Zojo serves up a hot cup of buzz

Okay, real talk: I first “discovered” Café Zojo after following my eyebrow waxer to her new place of employment, Maia Roman Spa. Maia Roman Spa opened in a quiet new shopping development near Philo and Windsor in Urbana, along with a Monical’s Pizza, a branch of Busey Bank, a gym called KINEX, and a restaurant that I’ve never seen anyone enter or exit. In the middle of it all I came across a shiny new café by the name of Zojo. Wanting to know what the deal was, I stopped by before my appointment two doors down. I have to say, I’m glad I did. While Zojo’s offerings and overall cohesiveness as a space/brand have only continued to get better, I was charmed by the place from the very beginning.

First, let’s talk beans. Zojo’s espresso beans are from Intelligentsia (hallelujah!), and yes, the baristas hand-pull your shots.  You can get a pour-over, too! A little birdie told me that all Zojo employees are trained in Chicago, at Intelligentsia. Lately they’ve been offering some rotating tasty bean selections from the awesome people at Counter Culture (North Carolina) and from Passion House (Chicago), which I’d never heard of. A quick visit to the Passion House website reveals their commitment to “roasting each coffee to its climax.” Passionate, indeed. From the bean selection it’s clear that Zojo is trying to position itself as a higher-end coffee shop, with ethically sourced, artisanal roasted beans for serious (or just snobby?) coffee drinkers. That said, I find the prices to be reasonable.

At Café Zojo you can expect above-average coffee and espresso drinks. So far I’ve enjoyed the drip coffee, americanos, and lattes. My mocha could have been much more rich – I had RSVP’d to a chocolate-espresso-milk dance party in my mouth, and was sadly stood up. Other than that, the beverages have a handcrafted look and the depth and richness of taste one would seek from a pricey coffee drink. Zojo carries Tiesta Tea, which apparently is run by a team of five dudes in Chicago who started the company after they took a transformative trip to Prague, or something. Anyway, the tea is good.

If you’re hungry, Zojo’s got treats on lockdown. Snacks on snacks on snacks, most made in-house, are available for purchase. My personal favorites have been the black cat cookie (in-house), whole-wheat apple muffin (in-house), and the Spicy Caribbean Jerk Turkey sandwich, which comes from Cheese & Crackers in Champaign. The black cat cookie is especially worth writing home about — it has a delightful crinkly-brownie-like texture. They’ve got cookies, cakes, pies, cold soups and salads, and the requisite bowl of bananas near the cash register. Zojo features organic fruit smoothies, too, in case you’re looking for some bourgeois juice (which I’m usually not).

Now, let’s talk décor, because space and style matters when you’re looking for your new favorite coffee hangout/study/Internet surfing spot. The décor at Zojo could best be described as slightly confused. One wall is an earthy orange, and the other is a gray putty color. The floor is a warm brownish-grey (greige) cement, which is awesome, but the tables and chairs are made of a hollow-feeling brushed metal that competes with the earth tones on the walls and floor. The bathrooms (yes, I’ve been in the men’s) each have one wall plastered with amusing vintage advertisements for lady/dude products. Zojo has great natural light and well-placed hanging lamps.

Repurposed window frames adorn the walls; through them we can “look out” on (pictures of) the coffee farms where Zojo’s beans are sourced. A bit silly, but it’s a respectable nod to the faraway places where our coffee grows, and the often-invisible hands that touch our coffee on its journey from plant to mouth. Need I mention that Intelligentsia coffee is direct-trade? Because it is. Zojo is a quiet establishment, with more mellow ambience than Cafe Kopi. I worry that it will never achieve the same neighborhood-watering-hole feel of Kopi, simply because it’s in a strangely empty new parking lot of shops. And not that I’m the center of the universe, but I live near downtown Champaign and therefore Zojo is about six miles away from my house. Bummer. Also, Zojo is only open until 7:30 p.m., at the latest, which makes it more of a mellow daytime coffee shop than a late-night happening place.

Who might love Zojo the most? Probably someone who lives nearby or who has a car (although you can take the Red bus to the Urbana Meijer just down the road), who loves the coffee at Paradiso but hates the crowds, and who doesn’t want to run into every single person they know at Kopi. Or me, when I’m craving a dark, rich espresso, a black cat cookie, and a quietly productive afternoon. Which is quite often.

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