Pilsen parish opens student-run coffee shop, ‘Holy Grounds’

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Pilsen parish opens student-run coffee shop, ‘Holy Grounds’

Holy Grounds coffee shop at St. Paul Church in Pilsen serves customers daily in a basement area of the church. Through the help of grants, the coffee shop is staffed by local college students and students from nearby Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. The young people are in charge of all aspects of the coffee shop from managing it day to day, developing the menus and picking out the decor. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Signs lead people to Holy Grounds. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A sign leads people to Holy Grounds. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Itzel Cebrero and Jorge Becerra wash dishes in the sink on Jan. 15, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jorge Becerra makes an order on Jan. 15, 2022. Becerra is a senior at Cristo Rey Jesuit Colle Prpe in Pilsen. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Itzel Cebrero makes an order on Jan. 15, 2022. She was the first employee hired for the shop in April 2021. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The decor designed by the staff on display. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Itzel Cebrero rings up Morgan Caracci's order on Jan. 15, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Morgan Caracci and her daughter Sofia enjoy their coffees on Jan. 15, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Sugars, a jug for water and other items for customers are available at the shop. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Itzel Cebrero makes an order on Jan. 15, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Specials advertised on the shop's counter on Jan. 15, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Staff take on every aspect of the shop including decorations. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jorge Becerra holds up a T-shirt that customers can receive for a donation to the shop on Jan. 15, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The shop logo as seen in reverse through the window. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Nestled in the basement of St. Paul Church, 2127 W. 22nd Place, is Holy Grounds, a coffee shop completely run by college and high school students.

The shop opened in June 2021 and is open six days a week.

The space was originally a storage room and parishioners with backgrounds in architecture and the construction trades donated their expertise to renovate it. But the details of building the business were all in the hands of the young people.

“Then it came along, with furniture to purchase, developing the menu, getting coffee beans, getting vendors, like people for the ice machine,” said Itzel Cebrero, a freshman at University of Illinois Chicago who was the first person hired for the coffee shop in April 2021.

Cebrero is a graduate of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen. Most staff members are current students or graduates of the school, where students participate in a work-study program. They work five eight-hour days each month at local corporations, earning about 60 percent of the tuition for the college prep school.

Holy Grounds employees are paid through internships from Centers for New Horizons, which assists children, youth and families in becoming self-reliant.  

The young people are hands on with every decision and enjoy the experience.

“One of the fun parts that we did was going to different coffee shops and trying new drinks to see what we can fit in the menu and try to develop more,” Cebrero said. “This has been a really fun job so far. I came here not knowing like how to make a coffee. We learned along the way. Pretty much we all try to work things out.”

Mexican hot chocolate was the first item they developed for the menu, and it remains the most popular.

The staff has a strong sense of teamwork, said Jorge Becerra, Holy Grounds manager and a senior at Cristo Rey.

“Being able to be here and have so much communication with a pretty new team — none of us has opened up a coffee shop before, so we were all learning, but we did everything together — is great,” he said.

Becerra also designed the website and the menu boards.

Both he and Cebrero are St. Paul parishioners.

While the shop has a steady flow of customers throughout the week, Sundays are particularly busy.

“On Sundays after Mass, we get just a big influx of people coming straight out of Mass and coming straight down here,” Becerra said.

The shop also serves croissants, and staff hope to expand the food offerings by bringing in items from local bakeries. It also offers art for sale.

During the Christmas season, Holy Grounds staff developed and sold a Christmas kit for children with hot chocolate and an ornament they could paint. Some of the kids hung their ornaments on the shop’s tree. Last fall, the shop also gave out free coffee to staff at Pilsen schools.

Engaging with the community is important for the shop, Becerra said.

“That’s like the whole point of Holy Grounds,” he said. “It’s not just a coffee shop. It’s a community space. We always try and connect the people.”

Cebrero, who is studying finance, said working at the shop has improved her time management, networking and teamwork skills.

“I will contact people and get quotes for this and quotes for that and I’m starting to make a lot of connections and knowing who to contact, negotiating your prices, those are the big ones,” she said.

“I think I’ve learned so many things and the best part about that is I can use these skills going forward in my entire life,” Becerra said.

Morgan Caracci and her daughter stopped by the shop on Jan. 15 after hearing a story about it on the radio.

“It caught our attention because they’re so involved in the community and the students hung up the shelves and we heard about the manager,” she said. “It just sounded like something we wanted to be part of and stop by.”

St. Paul and Holy Grounds is off the Stevenson Expressway on Damen Avenue with a parking lot just feet from the coffee shop entrance. The shop takes online orders and is closed on Mondays.

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