(Ed note: New photos appended. 7/20/10) Life in Ravenswood Manor just got a little sweeter with the opening of the newest First Slice Pie Café. Though currently operating under a limited soft launch schedule (Thursday through Saturday, 7 a.m. – 7 p.m; Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.), plans are to eventually serve up baked goods, salads, sandwiches, and coffee seven days a week. Outdoor seating is also in the works.
The café, at 4664 N. Manor Ave. (immediately adjacent to the Francisco El station), is the third in the First Slice family. The other locations are at the Lillstreet Art Center and Chicago Water Works Visitor Center.
Founded by chef Mary Ellen Diaz, formerly of Printer’s Row and North Pond restaurants, First Slice is a not-for-profit, community-based kitchen. Profits from the cafés help support the First Slice mission, which is to provide access to wholesome food for those living in poverty.
In the current economic climate, First Slice wasn’t necessarily looking to expand, but when the storefront on Manor, formerly home to Kitchen Chicago, became available, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“When we saw the kitchen, that was it,” said Ryan Cooper, who manages the First Slice Lillstreet café and has helped oversee the opening on Manor.
“There aren’t a whole lot of other businesses around there—it’s such a quiet, calm place—but there are so many people, and with all the stay-at-home moms and families, it made sense.”
First Slice actually took possession of the real estate some time ago, but the space needed more work than originally anticipated.
“There were a lot of inspection upgrades,” Cooper said. The café area was completely bare. It’s since been filled with flowerpots and farmhouse-style tables that mimic the décor at Lillstreet. (As a note to patrons, particularly parents with young children: there’s no public restroom). Also similar to its sister location, food is served on crockery produced by Lillstreet artists.
Cooper is pleased to report that already the new café is exceeding expectations, with first-day sales topping projections by a whopping 500 percent. “It’s only been a few days, so it’s hard to say there are trends,” said Annette D’Anna, a staff member who could be found, on a recent morning, restocking the salads and pies behind the counter. “But so far it’s been the morning commuter rush for coffee and pastries, and the evening commuters for pie.”
Count Gene Gemperline among the new converts. Gemperline, who lives in the building next to the café, had been watching the construction process for months. The shop is “definitely a great addition, a great use of space” and adds a welcome bit of bustle to the neighborhood, he said, as he picked up a coffee and muffin to go.
“It has character—a lot better than a Starbucks.” He also appreciates First Slice’s community outreach efforts. He and his fiancée have signed up for the First Slice meal program, which provides subscribers with three meals a week—the same high-quality meals that First Slice prepares for various soup kitchens throughout Chicago. Meal subscriptions, along with the cafes, are a primary source of funding for the nonprofit.
But make no mistake, whether people are attracted to First Slice for its social conscience, use of locally sourced organic ingredients, or simply its proximity to an El stop, it?s the pie that hooks them and keeps them coming back. Pies, Cooper estimates, make up 80 to 90 percent of First Slice?s business. The pastries are baked fresh every day (currently the Lillstreet and Manor kitchens are splitting duties) from recipes created by Diaz and pastry chef Ninfa Ortiz, who designed the sweets to be light on sugar, salt, and fat but heavy on flavor.
“There are 25 apples in each apple pie,” Cooper said. “It’s just apple city in there.” Anywhere from 12-15 varieties are available each day. A quick survey noted mint chocolate chip, chocolate cream, apple, and coffee toffee. “We have families come in for family pie night,” Cooper said.
The emphasis on pie, which bucks the current cupcake craze, is neither coincidence nor a marketing strategy. The first slice represents the organization’s belief in providing those in need with fresh, quality food. “Rather than giving them the leftovers of what others have tossed out,” Cooper said, “we’re giving them the first slice.”
Contact First Slice for additional information on the subscription program and volunteer opportunities.