Photo caption: Elizabeth Hubbard, right, pours a cup of coffee for Gail Doeff. With Shelley Patterson, they operate Upstairs Café at the Central Street Metra station. RoundTable photo

For decades, commuters who take the Metra from Central Street have been able to start their day with coffee, pastry, papers, and good cheer from a cozy coffee shop at the north end of the waiting room.

But by the end of April, customers will probably have had their last stop at the Upstairs Café. In September of last year, the City notified the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the station, that it would not renew its lease of the Central Street station. The lease expired in December.

Transportation and Mobility Coordinator Katherine Knapp told the RoundTable the City leases only the Central Street Metra station, not the Davis or Main Street stations.

Paul Zalmezak, Senior Economic Development Planner for the City, told the RoundTable the City decided not to renew the Central Street lease because Union Pacific had increased the rent (it had been $1 per year) and would have made the City responsible for the station’s maintenance, repair, and potential liability. He said, even though the City did not renew the Union Pacific lease, the Upstairs Café continued to operate there.

The Union Pacific now plans to hire a broker and look for tenants that would bring in more revenue, Elizabeth Hubbard, one of the owners of Upstairs Café, told the RoundTable.

“We were surprised and disappointed. We voiced our support for both businesses [the wine shop and Upstairs Café],” Mr. Zalmezak told the RoundTable. He said he planned to speak with Union Pacific representatives again this week “and express our disappointment. We had a good, viable business on Central Street and a good proposal for Main Street.”

The Union Pacific, Mr. Zalmezak said, can terminate a lease with a 30-day notice. Ms. Hubbard said she learned only recently their lease would not be renewed. “We got a call only a week ago [the week of March 20] and were asked to be out of this space by the end of April.”

Oral history recounts the evolution of the Central Street space from coffee shop to café: from Jimmy’s – as the place was known in the 1970s and 80s, where owner Jimmy Shabon brewed coffee, sold newspapers and cooked the occasional hamburger (station hours were longer then) for commuters – to Top of the Tracks, owned and operated by Mary Lou Smith for the next 24 years, to the present Upstairs Cafe.

“Jimmy called everybody ‘Chief,’ and he really knew his customers,” a now-retired commuter told the RoundTable. “He had quite a following, and people wondered whether the new owner would have that kind of following. Mary Lou rose to the occasion.”

Ms. Smith spruced up the place with tablecloths, train paraphernalia, and personalized service, making it a hub for the commuting community. She knew her customers, often having the order ready by the time the customer made it to the counter. She offered coffee, tea, locally baked pastries, and newspapers. In return, she found loyal customers who shared their excitement, concerns, and views on local, national and global issues.

When Ms. Smith sold the business 4 1/2 years ago to Elizabeth Hubbard, Gail Doeff, and Shelley Patterson, the tradition of hospitality went along under a new name: Upstairs Café. Simple coffee is still a mainstay, but, as bakers and cooks, Ms. Doeff and Ms. Patterson offer freshly prepared breakfast options: scones, an egg dish, and other pastries.

“Our two questions when we think about what to prepare are ‘Can we cook it quickly?’ and ‘Can this be eaten on a train?’” Ms. Doeff told the RoundTable.

Ms. Hubbard said they have created a community within the tiny café, whose customers may spend fewer than 10 minutes at a time there. “What we really like is helping people start their day. They come in and can get a smile,” she said. Noting that there are seven coffee shops on Central Street and a pastry shop as close as across Poplar Avenue, she said, “They still come here.” She and Ms. Doeff said they serve hundreds of people each day.

The three have been known to put money into a parking meter when someone was too rushed to do that and to scoot customers out and onto a train even before they have paid – happy that the customer did not miss the train and confident they would be reimbursed soon. They saved eggshells for one customer who wanted them for his tomatoes and delivered scones to a regular who had undergone serious surgery.

During this election season, “We’ll drag a candidate in and say, ‘This is what our customers want.’ We know the lay of the land,” Ms. Hubbard said.

Ms. Hubbard said many of their customers are as upset as they at the prospect of losing their early-morning gathering place. “We feel they’re being let down by Union Pacific.”

Ms. Patterson told the RoundTable, “We have had a huge outpouring of support from our Upstairs Cafe customers and members of the community.  Scores of people have been engaged in an email campaign with Union Pacific, lobbying Liisa Stark, Assistant Vice President of Public Affairs for Union Pacific, to express the desire that the café remain in business and be given a new lease to continue service to the community. This has given us hope that there may be a reconsideration by UP.”

Ms. Hubbard said she understands that Union Pacific has made a business decision, “but we think it’s a short-sighted business decision.”

Ms. Patterson said, “We very much want to stay and serve our community, and we believe that the Metra commuters and other Evanston residents are going to really miss the personal touch they’ve become accustomed to.  Evanston isn’t full of chain stores and big box retailers for a reason. We like to believe that we are the best part of our customers’ commute each day.”

Jae Miller, Director of Corporate Relations & Media for Union Pacific, wrote in an email to the RoundTable, “We greatly value our partnership with the City of Evanston, a community in which our employees, customers, and partners live and work. In an effort to maximize our impact in the community, we are currently in the process of identifying the best and most effective use of the space at Central Street Station. We remain in close contact with the occupant of the space to ensure a smooth transition. In the meantime, the Central Street Station will remain open. Union Pacific will maintain the site until future plans have been identified.”

Whether the swell of customer support will sway the Union Pacific to let Ms. Hubbard, Ms. Doeff, and Ms. Patterson stay remains to be seen.  In the meantime, the City has offered to help them find a new location, which may not be “upstairs” but which is certain to house a community-minded trio of businesswomen. 

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...