The New Local: Did you and your husband open Hero?
Michelle Martinez: So actually, my husband and I just acquired Hero. My husband was working for Hero a few months before [we signed the papers]. I was working at Infused Hospitality, a group that opens up coffee shops as amenities in buildings.
It was a no-brainer when Hero was on the table for us, because coffee has been a passion of mine for a really long time. When I was 15, I got my first job at Kristoffer's Cafe, which is a local coffee shop owned by a family from Columbia. They served Intelligentsia coffee, so I was spoiled by coffee early on – at 15, I shouldn't have known what that tasted like!
That was my start, and ever since I've then I've wandered into Starbucks and I've gone into the corporate world of it. I've gone to independent work with small coffee shops to opening coffee shops.
Having my own coffee shop was a dream I sort of stumbled into. It's been a really wild journey and sometimes I can't believe it. I'm just so focused on the people aspect of it, and that's kind of what gets you through the day. You're like, "okay, what's the next best thing that we can do? How can I make this better for everyone?"
TNL: Since you've seen so many facets of the coffee industry, what is your favorite part?
MM: I think it always boils down to customer service. Hospitality has always been the most rewarding to me. It's nice to see people on a day-to-day, and you truly have the ability to make an impression on someone's life, even if it's for a 30-second time period. If you see that same person seven days a week, over time, you have the opportunity to create a relationship. I get to learn about people, and in the end, it's the communal aspect to bring everyone together.
TNL: Can you tell me about the charitable work Hero does? I know you just did work with City Year on MLK Day.
One of our employees, Enrique, knew about this really great nonprofit organization for MLK Day. I reached out to [City Year] and they asked if we'd sponsor coffee. I said we would sponsor regardless and we just want to be there! We wanted to do that because it's who we are and we believe in it. We ended up getting 12 employees, which was incredible for such a short amount of time. It was our first year, and we will be doing it every year for MLK Day!
A lot of our baristas do a lot of volunteer work. We have a really amazing group of team members who truly care, and live and breathe the Hero mission.
TNL: How did Hero's monthly charitable component get started?
MM: The first part of it was figuring out what we could do to give back, that's how City Year came about. We always heard that companies did it, but we didn't know where the dollar went. I've worked in so many facets of the coffee world, but I've never seen anyone follow through with the project of giving a donation on a monthly basis. Yes, it eats into our profit, but it's not necessarily about the profit.
TNL: Do you seek out the nonprofits?
MM: We do! As people learn more about us, people come to us, and we're able to start the conversation. We really want to work with local organizations.
February 28th is our Hero Rally. We're closing all the stores early and bringing all of our employees together and we'll do cool and interactive things - we'll have a latte art competition and we'll talking about coffee, but the true meaning of this is about our mission and what we want Hero Coffee to be. We'll pick the four charities then, with the input of our team members because we really want this to be a group effort.
TNL: Is the Hero mission one mission across the brand?
MM: One hundred percent! Even though my husband and I divvy up the responsibility in terms of time spent with all of our employees, we have two people on the same page so we can spend 15-20 hours at each location. We're really trying to have that face time with our employees to ask "how can we get you guys involved?"
TNL: It sounds like the community you foster externally with your customers and internally with your employees has to attribute to the growth of your company.
MM: I think so, too! Hero as a brand probably has a ways to go, and I think for us to be known as somebody who partners locally within the community is important to us. It edges out the competition a little bit, especially in a world full of Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts on every corner. There are people who are becoming more aware, and say "let me go to my local business. I want to know where my money is going". If it means they have to pay 25 cents more for a cup of coffee, but that 25 cents goes to a charity for a whole month, I feel like people would make that choice. I would make that choice – it's kind of how I live my whole life, so I hope that's the wave!
We pay our employees a little bit more because we want to make sure they're comfortable and they have good living situations. It's hard when you're in an industry where every penny counts, too. My husband and I are learning that right now in the cold months! But it's doesn't mean we can't do the things we want to do. It's what we need to foster and bring back to the team because it's the way we'll be able to walk the walk.
And I can't say enough how amazing our employees are! [Our employees] build relationships with each other and with customers – I see it on a day to day when I'm behind the bar making coffee with them, and they're enjoying their time.
TNL: Where is your coffee sourced form?
MM: It's sourced at the Fulton Market location. We're currently in talks with our regional founder, Craig, who was the person who came up with the idea of Hero, so now we work in partnership with Limitless. In terms of our coffee roasting, we're looking to be a little bit more direct, and I think that's where coffee will change within the Hero brand.
TNL: Do you think you'll roast your own coffee?
MM: Yes, absolutely! That's the goal. For us, our focus is the charity aspect and the internal part where we're nurturing relationships with our team members. The coffee will be the last part because it'll take a lot more of my attention, and right now I want to make sure we're setting the foundation for what Hero is going to be before going into that venture.
TNL: Is there a story being the name, "Hero"?
MM: Originally, the HE stood for Headstash, RO was Roastery. Our founder Craig [Headstash] roasted his own beans and it really started to grow when Limitless came into the picture to help financially and really expand the brand.
Now, I think it's come full circle and Hero can stand on it's own. When my husband and I purchased this, we fell in love with the brand and it means more to us for how we can be heroes to people on a day to day, in the community.
TNL: I sensed some double meaning between your name and your mission! How fitting.
MM: It is! That's what makes it so great – and it's easy for me to create hashtags!
Just be somebody's hero. Be a hero in your community. It doesn't have to be this unattainable person who donates millions or dollars, it's just someone buying somebody a cup of coffee when they're having a bad day. We implemented a day to day where everyone has to give out a free cup of coffee on their shift, and that facilitates a conversation and prompts you to pass it on.
TNL: Who is your hero?
MM: It's always going to be family. My direct hero is my husband – I absolutely adore him. He's been through so much in his life and we connect on so many different levels. I think the fact that we see eye to eye on so many things is incredible. I think it's going to make this brand amazing. We've had some long days and we've had some difficult days, and we're always there to perk each other up.
Also, my dad – he came to this country with just a couple dollars in his pocket and not really speaking the language. It blows my mind and makes me super emotional when I think about it.
A lot of Chicagoans have similar stories, and I think it's looking to people and saying, "I'm a good person, you're a good person", and trying to help each other out. I think it's going to reinforce what we're trying to do as a company and as people. It's what it all comes down to – the little things.
Visit Hero Coffee Bar
2950 N. Sheridan
Chicago, IL 60657
222 N LaSalle
222 N. LaSalle Dr. Chicago, IL 60601
1100 W. Madison St.
Chicago, IL 60607
1651 W Chicago Ave. Chicago, IL 60622
22 E Jackson Ave. Chicago, IL 60604
439 S Dearborn St.
Chicago, IL 60605