Helix Cafe: Behind the Scenes of this Student-Driven Cafe

Photographed by Thomas | © 2019 TK Photography | www.tkphotographychicago.com

By: Camryn Pischke (Loyola Junior)

Only about a 15-minute walk from Loyola’s Lakeshore campus lies Helix Cafe. Helix may look like an ordinary coffee shop from the curb, but its mission is much greater. Helix Cafe is the child organization of Helix Education, which is a non-profit that provides K-12th graders with opportunities to gain business experience and valuable life lessons outside of the traditional classroom setting.

Sean Connolly (32) was a Loyola graduate for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees and is currently an adjunct professor. He is also the Executive Director of Helix, Chair of Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, and LGBTQ Coordinator for Illinois Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Connolly and his former college roommate Caitlin Botsios developed the idea for Helix during their first 11 years spent in the Edgewater/Rogers Park area. In 2018, Helix Education was officially created and Helix Cafe opened shortly after. 

Through a number of different avenues, Helix Education is working towards serving the community and students throughout the Rogers Park and Edgewater community. Helix Cafe is a traditional cafe that helps Helix Education grow and provide real-world learning experiences for students. 

All of the proceeds made at Helix Cafe help to support Helix Education. The cafe offers a coffee subscription, espresso drinks, flavored lattes, tea, and an assortment of pastries. They source all of their pastries from Edgewater’s Phlour Bakery and Andersonville’s Defloured Bakery. For them, it is important to support the local businesses in the community. 

*Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rogers Edge Reporter: What made you want to place Helix Cafe in the Edgewater/Rogers Park area? 

Connolly: Obviously we love Edgewater and Rogers Park, but it was also because we have been working in this area for 11 years. We know the people who we need to work with here. We’ve always been close with the 48th ward and not just the alderman, but also the community organizers, community activists. We also know who to go to when we have questions about local environmental sustainability initiatives.  

RER: When did your plans become a reality? 

Connolly: There are two ways I can answer this. We registered for our limited liability corporation in August 2018 and we signed the lease for this space in November 2019. We planned it all out prior to that. We closed the cafe during the pandemic because we were getting so busy with our education work. 

RER: I understand that Helix cafe is under the umbrella of Helix Education. Is Helix Cafe the first business opened or are there multiple businesses or multiple in the works?

Connolly: Helix Cafe is the only brick-and-mortar business we have. We now have adult learning, social innovation cohorts, with our partners at Teach for America in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indy. Then we have in-school cohorts and in-school classes that we run. Then, we are doing curriculum development for entire school districts now aligning with 21st-century skills. We have a lot in our education bucket right now. Also, we host our own after-school programs in person through three cohorts a year. Our impact is about 7,000 K-12 students and 35-40 adults in this cohort. 

RER: What kind of roles do the students perform in the cafe?

Connolly: Originally we had envisioned two versions of the students working in the cafe. Kids would work behind the counter and they’d work in a business functional team to create a marketing plan, operation strategy, and work with HR. Post-pandemic we decided to back out of the hands-on job experience and instead focus with the 9-12 graders on the business functions. It’s easier through zoom and lets us bring in more people throughout the city. The goal is not to teach kids how to be a barista. It is to make sure they have a college career plan that they are starting to develop skills for. 

RER: In your own words, can you describe the mission of Helix?

Connolly: To create a youth-driven ecosystem. That is our end goal and we do that through a number of different avenues. But a lot of what we are trying to do is look at communities whether that be a small rural town, a neighborhood in Chicago, or any neighborhood that already has existing infrastructures and small businesses. That infrastructure exists and rather than rebuilding new educational infrastructure we provide project-based learning. We want to know how to use existing small businesses for the educational benefit in different communities. 

RER:  What is one thing about Helix that you want the community to know?

Connolly: Within the Edgewater and the greater Senn-Loyola community we want people to know that there is more going on than just a coffee shop. This cafe represents about 15% of what we are doing. Around the neighborhood, I think a lot of people think it is just a coffee shop. I think it’s important for people to know that it’s contributing to this larger educational model and putting student agency first. 

For more information about Helix Chicago and Helix Cafe go to:  https://www.helixchicago.com. Helix Cafe is located at 6237 N Clark Street.

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