Smile Politely

A library cafe? Well, Latté Da!

“Ever since I was six, all I ever wanted to do was have a bookshop with a café in it,” said Lauren Klein.  Today, about a quarter of a century later, she’s come pretty close to achieving that goal.  Along with her husband, Karl, the Kleins own and operate the Latté Da! cafés at both the Champaign and Urbana public libraries.  There are also Latté Da! cafés in operation at three of Carle’s facilities.  The cafés feature “coffee and espresso drinks, tea, chai, and hot chocolate to warm you,” as well as a “variety of cold beverages plus smoothies and shakes.”

C-U has no shortage of places to buy coffee-oriented drinks, but Klein feels her businesses are different because they’re not “destination cafés.”  People don’t go to the library for coffee; it’s an afterthought.   “The smaller cafés in town are, like, destination coffee houses.  If you want to surf the net for a couple of hours, you go out of your way to go to Kopi or Aroma.  We’re different.  People are at the library anyway, so we’re definitely like an impulse purchase.  We’re aware of that and that we have to try harder,” Klein said. 

Since they’re not the main attraction, Klein feels customer service has to come first: “We strive for constant customer satisfaction.  Whatever it is, we want to make sure that all of our customers are happy all the time,” Lauren said. Along these lines, she stated that a key to the chain’s success is its baristas, who usually work alone, and, as such, are the sole representatives of the cafésand by extension the librariesat each location.  Therefore, she and her husband are very careful about hiring the right people, favoring baristas with plenty of charm and patience, but without a lot of piercings, tattoos, or bad attitude.

From what I’ve seen, they’ve been successful at doing so.  I personally witnessed one of the Champaign Library baristas chill out one disgruntled customer and eventually convert him into a regular. 
Another component to the chain’s success, Klein said, is Leaves ‘N Beans Roasting Company in Peoria Heights, Illinois, which keeps Latté Da! supplied in coffee.  “Our roaster, James, is totally passionate about what he does.  It’s very important, since we’re trying to satisfy so many different palates.”  What the Kleins can’t get from Leaves ‘N Beans comes from Batdorf & Bronson in Olympia, Washington.

The small chain of C-U Latté Da! cafés began in Miami, Florida around the turn of the century.  Klein, then living in Miami, began working for a man who ran a coffee cart in a hospital.  Later, he sold the business to Klein who added the exclamation point to the Latté Da! name and, along with her husband, eventually opened several more stores in the Miami metro area.  However, in 2006, Klein grew nostalgic for the changing seasons and smaller town atmosphere of the Midwest after a trip back home to her native Ann Arbor, Michigan.  So, she convinced her husband, a native of Florida, to move back to C-U with her that year.  Klein’s grandmother Jane Andersona well-known and respected community member who was active for years with Channing-Murrayhad recently passed away, and the couple moved into her house in Champaign.  They’re still living in the house today along with their two small children.  The home came with an active history: “People who knew my grandmother will just show up and take stuff from the garden,” said Klein with a laugh.  “They’ll say that she let them do it all the time.”

Later, the Kleins bid on both the Champaign and Urbana public library concessions and eventually the contracts for the three Carle concessions as well.  “I think Carle liked us because our logo matches theirs,” stated Klein in all seriousness. 

Running small businesses is what Klein says she likes doing best.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in business and feels that while it’s important to know the proper way to write business plans and so forth, there’s something about being an entrepreneur that can’t be learned in school.  “If you get a degree in English, say, you have to write, you have to create something.  In business school it’s more about reading case studies and things like that. You have to get out there and start a business to learn how to do some things: how to sell your ideas, how to talk to strangers, how to manage people.” 

She feels that in C-U relative to Miami, a small business has to sell itself to the whole town, not just whatever neighborhood it’s in; therefore, customer service is even more important here than there. Despite the couple’s ownership of the five C-U locations and their franchising of two Latté Da! cafés in Florida, Klein said, “We are definitely not looking to be the next Starbucks.”  She said the Kleins have no plans of opening up any more cafés in the foreseeable future.

Klein said that she’s able to keep prices down because of the cafés’ business relationship with the libraries that serve as their hosts.  “All of our overhead is rolled into a flat percentage of the sales we do at the library,” she said, “All of our utilities are included.  Those savings passed are passed on to customers.  We do things like offer two-dollar daily drink specials which we probably wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.”

Latté Da! maintains a strong Internet presence; along with their homepage the chain has both a blog and a Facebook page.  The sites feature work by local illustrator Jillian Nickel, who designed the chain’s “Blue Blend” image.  However, when it comes to keeping up these different web pages,  Klein lamented, “We’re always like a few months behind.”

To me, the sandwiches and pastries from Latté Da! (purchased locally by the Kleins from Pekara and Carmella’s Creme) taste great, as does the coffee.  However, I’m also thrilled by Jimmy John’s sandwiches, all Hostess products, and Nestle instant-coffee, so I’m pretty easy to please.  Not exactly a connoisseur at all.  Moreover, coffee-related topics have proved controversial in the past on Smile Politely, so I’m not making any authoritative claim as to how good their products are. 

I am more qualified to say that Lauren Klein herself is super friendly, and appears to have a knack for hiring baristas who are as well.  Once, when Klein knew me only be sight as an occasional customer, she spotted me sitting on a bench from across West Side Park and bustled overwaving and smiling all the whileto say hello and thank me for buying her coffee.  That kind of behavior is good for business, of course, but it also seems to be the way she genuinely is. 

Klein explained  that many people don’t get that Latté Da! and the libraries the shops are housed in are separate entities.  So, if people aren’t happy with Latté Da!, it reflects on the library. Also, the chain has to strive to create its own identity in the minds of library patrons:  “Even though we won’t be people’s first thought when they come to the library, we want people to think that we’re really nice and we have great coffee,” she said.

I’d agree that both are true. 

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