Beverage shops come and go. In the end, when we’re asked where we go for a remote work day, we still list those few coffee shops in Chicago. This makes you wonder what’s going on with the beverage world. Cafes are great, right? Then, why is it so hard to leave an impression? Just in case you’ve thought once in your life that you’d start your own coffee shop (I did), or if you’re on your way to launching a new beverage concept in Chicago: we’re bringing in the owner behind one of the most successful beverage shops in Chicago in the past year — Bianca from Matcha Cita!
Recently opened its second location in the popping River North, Matcha Cita is everything it takes for us to fall in love with it: adorable interiors without overusing trendy elements, delicious drinks appealing to the eyes and the taste buds, light bites perfect as midday snack, and finally, well-lit space and comfortable seating for us remote workers. So, what exactly made Matcha Cita such a success story?
Q (UrbanMatter Chicago): First thing first, will you be running any promos for your new location in River North? Like a grand-opening special?
A (Bianca): So not really a grand opening. I like to ease into things to make sure I’m not overwhelming the cafe. But later on we’ll definitely [do something special].
Q: I totally just asked that because I love your drinks lol. Anyways, let’s start with some backstories. What gave you the idea of Matcha Cita? Do you have a special personal connection to the beverage?
A: So I have a huge background in hospitality. I ran restaurants, nightclubs, banquet halls… I’ve kinda done it all. During Covid, I was still employed full time and I was running my own events business. But since we were so stuck at home, I felt like I needed some connection with the food and beverage [industry], so I started brainstorming. Because of Covid, everyone was on their phone — that was why Tik Tok blew up, and Instagram had so much more traffic. So I was like: Okay, what’s super Instagrammable that Chicago doesn’t have?
Also, I got Covid early on, in the summer time of 2020. And I couldn’t drink coffee! I thought it was disgusting. The taste drove me crazy for probably about a year, so i was just drinking matcha and thinking it was so much better — it’s clean-cut caffeine. So I kinda was like — lightbulb! Why don’t I open a matcha cafe in Chicago?
Q: Oh gosh. We didn’t know Covid could make you not like coffee’s taste. That’s wild!
A: Mine was toothpaste, coffee, and Pepsi. Oh, my, God! But now I’ve got my taste back. I actually had my first cup of coffee yesterday (Oct. 9)!
Q: Now: people who don’t like matcha always say those few things. It’s bitter, it tastes weird… So did you have any difficulty promoting the matcha idea? If you did, how did you overcome customers’ reluctance?
A: Well, we don’t have that many matcha-focused cafes in the city. A lot of our “competitors” who focus on coffee serve a sweet matcha. It’s the lowest-grade matcha you can find around. It’s syrup-based versus powder-based, and that’s what gets you that earthy taste. So we tell customers that we use the highest grade matcha. Ours is ceremonial grade and comes straight from Japan. It is sourced tremendously. And when you have the highest grade, you’re not gonna get that earthy taste. We also use a lot of other flavors like strawberries and papaya that will somewhat mask the taste if you somewhat still feel like you might get that earthy taste.
Q: That’s awesome! Well, one of the biggest thing with Matcha Cita is how pretty all your drinks are. But how was it coming up with those drink ideas? Because I know that matcha green color isn’t the easiest to work with when you’re trying to come up with cute color combinations!
A: It was a lot of trial-and-error. It was also a lot of taking Pinterest recipes you found and kind of making them your own. For example, some people like strawberry matcha while we do strawberry papaya because the color is ten times more attractive than a regular strawberry matcha drink.
Q: Gotcha! Then, have you made something that tasted totally delicious, but the visual simply made you go “oh no way I can put this on the menu?”
A: Yaaasss. Haha, we’ve had a lot of those. Sometimes we were able to overcome it by pushing it more as a hot drink. Recommending it hot versus cold. Like we have this apple chai right now on our seasonal menu, and when it’s cold, it doesn’t look pretty lol. But when it’s hot, it tastes great and still works with the matcha theme. We also did a strawberry lemonade special matcha over the summer, and when you mix the red and the green it turns brown. It’s very pretty at first, but once you start mixing it, you’re like “oh my gosh, it’s not pretty.”
Q: Now, let’s go back to the business questions. Most beverage shops in Chicago have not had the kind of growth Matcha Cita had. So, what do you think made your shop such a success right off the bat?
A: For me, I think you have to be very experienced. I came from a background of growing businesses very quickly. So being able to see my uncle expanding our pizzeria at as young as 14, and going into a profession down here that did the exact same thing, it was easier for me. If it was an entrepreneur who has just started, I definitely think it would be more difficult, but I really capitalized on the look, the taste, and the locations. That was something I knew I needed to achieve to be able to open up more stores at a rapid rate.
Q: Thank you for that insight! Now, speaking of the “look,” we know Chicago is such an influencer town nowadays. But many “instagrammable” spots actually have a very cookie-cutter ivbe. So, what was your process for developing the concept, design, the look-and-feel the establishment should have for influencer collaboration… And what recommendations would you give someone who’s trying to build an instagrammable business?
A: I think you (the business owner) really have to educate yourself and stay in-the-know with social media. Somebody that runs a business that only relies on their marketing director versus educating themselves on what’s trending as an owner — I think that’s my no.1. You always need to be knowledgeable of what’s going on. Like flower-walls was such a trend, right?
And neon signs. Now, we limited ourselves to two neon signs at the first location. But if you go to many other places, neon signs are everywhere. And I was very hesitant because the look could be overplayed. So yea, you just have to be in the know of what’s trending and what might become trendy in the future. And honestly, taking ideas from other cultures was very big for me. I travel a lot and when I see something cool, I’m the first person to take a pamphlet or business card, reach out to their marketing manager and give praise to other brands. Just always pay attention to what is trending.
Q: How different is the second location compared to your first one?
A: So this (River North) is a much smaller location. It’s more of a grab-and-go. But we’re inside Studio Three in River North, which is an awesome brand. It’s nice to pair with a gym because we do have healthier options on this menu. At the first location, you’ll see a lot of waffles and stuff like that. The River North location is more focused on juices, immunity shots, and of course, our specialty drinks. We definitely implemented a lot more health ideas.
For the look, we did pull a lot of the same elements from the first location, but in different colors. The colors still go with our brand, but they’re adjusted a little bit to still create a different feel.
Q: Last question — I know you just opened a second location, but are there any big plans on the horizon?
A: So we will be having more holiday drinks this year. We only launched about four to five fall drinks because we really want to knock the holiday drinks out of the park for winter times! We obviously loved the pumpkins and apples, but I think white chocolate would also really nice with matcha. And we are already looking for a third location. It’s not going to be in the City of Chicago, might be in the suburbs, but most likely out of state.
Featured Image: Matcha Cita