Last week, A Table in the Corner of the Cafe, along with five other bloggers from the Chicago Blogger Network, was invited to cover the 2012 TimeOut Chicago Eat Out Awards. I was thrilled to accept this exclusive invitation, but I was also hesitant. I’m not a restaurateur after all – I’m not even a foodie. Personally, a ham and turkey club sandwich from Jimmy John’s is usually just fine for me.

The Eat Out Awards, however, celebrate the best in Chicago cuisine – it’s a celebration of some of the highest profile chefs and restaurants in all of Chicago.

But I’m a coffee blogger; and, at this awards ceremony, there was going to be absolutely no representation from the Chicago coffee scene. Looking over the list of nominees, there were categories for Best Pizza, Best Burgers, Best Frozen Yogurt, Best Sweets Shop, and others, but none for Best Roaster or Best Coffee Shop.

Quite frankly, I’m still very surprised that this category doesn’t exist – it’s becoming more and more a widely accepted belief that specialty coffee is every bit a culinary experience as wine, yet it doesn’t get the same respect in culinary circles as wine. And if you’re going to honor something like “Best Frozen Yogurt” or “Best Food Truck” at an awards ceremony that also celebrates five-star restaurants, then I think that “Best Coffee Shop” deserves to be a category too!

Regardless, I was very happy for all of the winners (some of which are restaurants that I frequent) and I felt honored to be asked to cover the event; but, after a couple hours of sitting around and schmoozing with Chicago’s culinary elite (not having any idea what to talk to them about, by the way), I also felt a little bit bored and very out of place.

At least there was an open bar and an outstanding buffet.

But then, while announcing the “Critic’s Choice” awards (the prizes that are selected by the editors of TimeOut Chicago), it seemed like a swell of surprise burst in the middle of the room when the prize “Best Biker Bar” was awarded to Heritage Bicycles General Store – manufacturer of bicycles and purveyor of Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Today I welcome the owner of Heritage Bicycles General Store and the winner of TimeOut Chicago‘s “Best Biker Bar” award to the Table for a conversation about his big win. Michael Salvatore, feel free to pull up a chair.

First of all, welcome to the Table – I’m very grateful that you agreed to join me here. But more importantly, congratulations on winning TimeOut Chicago‘s prize for “Best Biker Bar!” Were you as surprised as I was when you found out that was the prize you won?

Yep! They kept contacting me and we just kept missing each other via phone. Finally when the photographer came to shoot for the spread she hinted that we should attend because there was an award waiting for us. The event was pretty fun and I was speechless (literally, all I said was “thanks”) because I was a bit nervous around all the renowned chefs around Chicago.

If I would have spoke, I would have said what an honor it was to have a place in their award ceremony and to be among the best of the best. And of course, with a nudge from my wife, I would have thanked her for all her hard work!

What does winning this award mean to you on a personal and professional level?

It is an honor. not something I ever thought I would be part of when I started this. I opened this up for almost selfish reasons (to do something I would enjoy running and being a part of) and it means a lot that people recognize it.

It validates what I thought was a good combination. And validates that Chicago is accepting this new style of business/brand.

I’m going to give you a great opportunity to toot your own horn, here: what is it about your business that made TimeOut Chicago deem Heritage Bicycles General Store deserving of an award?

Haven’t I been tooting my own horn this whole interview? I hate talking about myself!

I really can’t speak for TimeOut but I do feel that because we are an honest shop that people are able to really relate to what we are doing. It is easy to walk into the space and feel comfortable and I think that is important. We hear a lot from our customers that there “is a good vibe here”. And I truly think it is because we are all enjoying the brand we are building and have put a lot of love into the space.

You recently announced that Heritage sold completely out of bicycles, so you’ve obviously been very successful as a bicycle manufacturer; how has the cafe side of things been going for you?

The cafe is doing amazing! When I first thought about the concept I always thought that the cafe was just to sustain biz but in actuality it is far more important than that. It has exceeded my expectations in its role and in the concept.

I know it’s only been a few days since the awards ceremony, but have noticed the prize having any affect on your business yet?

Since it came out in print the space has been full. Its great! People are coming in just to check it out and ask questions…I am excited about the weekend, I just wish the weather was a little better so people could take advantage of the outdoor patio that we just opened up. We were tricked with the early spring!

Reading over the list of nominees, it was plain to see that the coffee industry had zero representation at this event; and, to my knowledge, TimeOut hasn’t really ever recognized the coffee industry at the Eat Out Awards in the past. Then, lo and behold, Heritage Bicycles General Store – purveyors of Stumptown Coffee Roasters – wins one of the coveted “Critic’s Choice” prizes. How does it feel to be coffee’s sole representative at the event, and to take home this prize? 

Way out of my element…not only am I not a restaurateur, I don’t even consider myself a coffee guy. I really came into this whole concept with a background in business development and cycling. I kept having to ask if I should know anyone at the event. That event made me realize how uncool I am (something my wife keeps reminding me of).

But again, really excited that they have taken notice of our space and what we are trying to do.

When there are categories dedicated specifically to burgers, frozen yogurt, or pizza, how do you, as the proprietor of a specialty coffee shop, react when coffee isn’t as celebrated?

Well, I guess I’m Ok with that since we got the award! I look at us as a speciality shop/brand and I would say that we don’t even fit into a coffee house category. We are just a category all in our own and I’m happy that they recognized that.

Do you think winning this award is a sign that TimeOut is beginning to consider specialty coffee as seriously as they consider other restaurants? 

I would hope so, because after opening and running this portion of the cafe along with the extensive training and education from Stumptown experts, I am on a whole other level of appreciation and understanding of what goes into a successful cup of coffee.

What did you think of the awards ceremony as a whole? Could you recommend any improvements for 2013?

I loved it. No complaints here.

I guess that winning “Best New” anything is a lot like winning “Rookie of the Year.” Now that you’ve been formally recognized by a reputable organization for your hard work, what are you going to do in the coming year to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”?

Just keep doing what we are doing …or even better, keep improving on what we are doing. I have a bad habit of always having another idea to add to the previous one!

Is there anything on the horizon for Heritage that we coffee lovers and/or bicycle enthusiasts should be getting excited about?

Yes- but thats all I can say 🙂

Last question, and possibly most important: where are you going to display your TimeOut Chicago Eat Out Awards plate?

Well, it has already been moving around our space trying to find its perfect spot. It spent the first few nights in the window and then this week it has been leaning against the espresso machine…wherever it ends up, it will not be gathering dust.

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