Food Programs at Your Café

A closeup of plates holding toasts, coffee, and the back of the yards business card in the middle.

We learn about Chicago-based Back of the Yards’ menu, and get insight on starting a food program at your café.


Photos courtesy of Back of the Yards

Like many aspects of running a business, starting a food program can involve a whole mess of logistics. Whether you’re responding to consumer demand or looking for ways to differentiate your business from others, serving food is a big leap that can come with many rewards—and challenges.

In this series, we’re talking to a handful of independently run coffee shops to get their take on starting a food program. This series is intended for small businesses whose focus is coffee, and don’t necessarily have a budget to allocate to a full kitchen and staff. Today, we’re featuring Back of the Yards Coffee, a Latinx-owned coffee company in the Chicago metropolitan area.

The owners of back of the yards smiling behind the counter of their shop.
Back of the Yards Coffee has been in business since 2016, and offers lonches and other breakfast treats for the Chicago area.

Back of the Yards Coffee is a roastery-café owned by Jesse Iñiguez and Mayra Hernandez, who opened the café portion of their business in 2017. From drinks to pastries and food, Jesse and Mayra’s café is reflective of their Latinx roots, with signature drinks like the traditional café de olla and dulce de leche cold brew. They opened the café right away with a food program and sandwich menu; they decided to do this because the space is located right across the street from a high school and public library—the perfect crowd to host a lunch rush.

Back of the Yards has a variety of staple sandwiches, or lonches, that Jesse (he/him) says pay homage to the neighborhood’s Hispanic/Latinx demographic, as well as the history of the area. Served on traditional teleras breads, Jesse and Mayra source cheeses and cold cuts from local providers to support other small businesses, while offering unique items that can only be found at their café.

“One of our sandwiches, The Sinclair, is inspired by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle,” Jesse explains. “The book exposed the harsh conditions of working immigrants in the meat industry in Chicago, so this sandwich is a nod to that time.” The Angie K fuses local flavors with Mexican ones, combining Chihuahua cheese and Wisconsin cheddar for a toasty grilled cheese sandwich. Back of the Yards’ food program also includes grab-and-go breakfast items like bagels, toasts, and oatmeal, and will offer rotating specials like tamales and kolaches from time to time.

“If I were to go back and do this again, I probably wouldn’t offer sandwiches,” says Jesse. “The cost of food waste is very high, and when you factor in labor costs it can be a lot of work.” To run the program, Jesse usually has two baristas on staff at a time, one whose focus is the coffee and the other working on tortas.

Back of the Yards’ food program also operates without a kitchen, an intentional choice that avoids some of the logistical nightmares of a full kitchen. “I wouldn’t recommend having a food program with a kitchen,” he says. “A kitchen with a hood has to go through a whole set of food regulations, which can get really complicated.”

A closeup of three tamales sitting on a white plate on a counter.
Back of the Yards Coffee also has rotating specials for food, including tamales from time to time.

When it comes to menu planning, Jesse advises to keep it simple, and even suggests partnering with a business whose primary focus is food. One way of doing this can be through pop-ups, or serving ready-made items. “Try to sell things that are very grab-and-go and smaller,” Jesse says. “And focus on the coffee first, because the food needs to be complementary to it since that’s your focus as a coffee shop.”

Another consideration that Jesse takes into account when planning menu items for the food program is the cost of each ingredient for his and Mayra’s sandwiches. It’s important to watch the profits that come after the cost of making each sandwich, and to have easy-to-handle items that don’t generate a lot of waste. A final and important factor for Jesse is making sure their suppliers offer delivery options. “While we do sometimes go to shops like Costco and Restaurant Depot, those places don’t account for time,” he affirms. “Sometimes, I could spend three hours doing a run at Costco, but I could have also spent that time growing the business, or helping behind bar.”

Back of the Yards’ menu is available here, with plans to incorporate more traditional Mexican pastries in the near future.

About Katrina Yentch 221 Articles
Katrina Yentch (she/her) is a freelance writer and Barista Magazine's Online Editor. When she's not writing, you can find her napping, cooking, and drinking whatever's on drip.