From the aromatic lavender of "the Mitski" to nutty ube macapuno boba, Brew Coffee Lab ensures each drink is made with care, perfected by a rich blend of ancestry and synergy.
“I’m one hundred percent Filipino, so many of our drinks were inspired by me,” said Brew Coffee Lab owner Japhlet Arañas. “But the signature lattes that we have and the different flavors of bubble tea were developed mostly by employees I’ve had throughout the years.”
Brew Coffee Lab opened its doors at Cafe Bergson on Oct. 11, serving as a secondary location to the original Brew inside the Des Plaines train station. In its limited time on campus, Brew has quickly become a hotspot for students craving a specialty drink.
The coffee shop replaced the former student-run cafe Brewbike, which shut down all eight of its locations this past summer due to financial constraints. With the space vacant, one of the directors of Northwestern’s dining services reached out to Arañas after hearing about Brew Coffee Lab from one of his customers.
The new coffee brewers offer a selection of unique lattes and Filipino drinks like calamansi juice (a lemonade), and ube macapuno (made with purple yam and coconut). The location has seen unexpected demand in the past four weeks, according to its employees.
“During the first week, people were waiting forty minutes to an hour for their drinks,” said Weinberg second-year and Brew-ista Alena Baker. “Our owner said it was going to be really busy, but it’s even busier than he thought it was going to be. I think it has exceeded his expectations both in the level of stress and in its success.”
Arañas agreed, saying the establishment has seen double the amount of business and revenue he had expected. The Cafe Bergson location has also garnered three to four times the business of the Des Plaines location, and Arañas was told it has seen twice the business of Brewbike.
“It was a really good surprise, but it also kind of blindsided us,” he said. “I’ve opened three businesses now. The first week is always insane, and the week after that is pretty slow because people have already seen and noticed you. But week three and onwards, business has been picking up more and more.”
Weinberg second-year and Brew Coffee Lab employee Benjamin Smith is unsurprised by the cafe’s demand.
“We’re a coffee shop in a library at a really tough university where people are studying all the time,” Smith said. “I think the busiest times will be during midterms and finals weeks, but I think we’ll stay pretty busy throughout.”
The unexpected positive feedback left Brew running out of many of its ingredients during their first week because their projected inventory hadn’t accounted for so many customers, said McCormick second-year and Brew-ista Alice Enger.
“My first shift we ran out of oat milk,” Enger said. “One time I came in because we ran out of espresso and whole milk, which was crazy.”
Inventory issues were heightened by the fact that Arañas didn’t initially invest as much into the Cafe Bergson location.
“We just opened our Des Plaines in June when our lease ended in our original spot, and of course I had to put money into that location, so we had very little capital [for this location] because it kind of came out of nowhere,” he said. “I paid out of pocket for the first few weeks. There was only so much I could do in terms of inventory, payroll and catching up on bills until the university paid me. Now we’re about 90% there in terms of inventory and being caught up with everything.”
Still, Baker, who formerly worked for Brewbike, seems to think Brew Coffee Lab is doing a better job keeping up with inventory than Brewbike did.
“BrewBike was out of things 24/7,” Baker said. “We were out of every alternative milk and matcha and chai all the time. But because [Brew Coffee Lab] has so many different options, it feels like it’s not as bad when we run out of stuff.”
And Arañas believes now that their source of inventory has become more stable, business will only continue to boom.
“There were customers who came to us for the first week or two and then noticed the things they liked weren’t there anymore because we ran out,” Arañas said. “But now that we’re caught up on inventory, I’ve seen people come back.”
Baker also believes the more expansive menu, with authentic Filipino and Asian-inspired selections, has increased its consumer base compared to Brewbike.
“I think we’ll be more successful because Brew is more unique,” Baker said. “The niche appeal of BrewBike was that it was student-run and a start-up, but that was also its downfall.”
According to Enger, their most popular drinks from the new menu are various forms of bubble tea.
“Having boba as an option opens us up to a huge pool of interest that’s a little bit more consistent,” Enger said. “There’s Starbucks and Coralie for people to go to for coffee, but this is such a close convenient option for boba that it would make a lot of sense for us to maintain business.”
And Enger believes the new owner’s management style will help the business flourish.
“I think what happened with Brewbike is that the people leading it didn’t have the time to care about all the little things,” she said. “We have somebody who has that level of care because he opened it himself. His passion itself is going to keep this place going and keep us stocked with consistent offerings and quality. I think once we get a little bit more established, we’ll prove to be a very consistent option for students.”