May 7, 2020
This story is part of a series of profiles of Evanston minority-owned businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
To dine at YoFresh Yogurt Cafe is to take a trip down memory lane.
Photos of local sports teams, friends and family dining at YoFresh cover what co-owner Jean Murphy calls the cafe’s “wall of fame.” In over five-and-a-half years, Murphy has never thrown away a picture. When she runs out of room on the walls, she transfers her photos to one of the cafe’s three bursting photo albums.
The cafe’s plush chairs invite visitors to sit back and relax. A world map on the wall guides patrons to tell stories of their travels, and tables full of magazines, newspapers and games encourage both kids and adults to connect with each other, fostering new friendships and strengthening old ones.
“We love the people coming in and out of the stores,” Murphy said. “The conversations. The kids that we’ve seen grow up over the last five and a half years. We love it.”
But for now, the cafe is quiet.
COVID-19 forced Murphy and her husband Larry to close their doors, only allowing two customers inside the building at a time. Guards, sanitizer, gloves and masks protect the Murphys and their customers from exposure to the virus.
YoFresh is still open for curbside pickup and rideshare delivery, but since the beginning of the pandemic, Murphy said they’ve lost around 60 to 70 percent of their income.
“We’re grieving,” she said. “We’re grieving the loss of income, and we’re grieving the sense of community that we had.”
Murphy and her husband opened their cafe more than five and a half years ago. The food they serve, she said, is “90 percent healthy,” incorporating sandwiches, soups, salads, bakery items, coffee and frozen yogurt among its offerings.
Over the years, YoFresh has served as a hub for book clubs, PTA meetings, receptions and celebrations. The cafe has sponsored travel opportunities for local minority youth, distributes novels from its Young, Black and Lit bookshelves, and engages with numerous other community initiatives. Now, YoFresh sends free yogurt to local seniors every Friday in partnership with Jennifer’s Edibles.
When there’s a need in Evanston, the Murphys are the first to raise their hands and offer their help, executive director of The Main-Dempster Mile Katherine Gotsick said.
“They’re not in it for the yogurt,” Gotsick said.“They’re in it to bring value for their neighbors and be a meaningful part of the community.”
Gotsick said since she started working with the couple in 2016, they’ve been active and engaged members of the Main Dempster Mile, leading the Black Business Consortium of Evanston North Shore and consistently showing up for community events.
Bluma Stoller, a longtime YoFresh customer, participates in regular YWCA Evanston/North Shore talk circles at the cafe. Not only has she established relationships with other talk circle attendees, but Stoller said she has also cultivated an enduring friendship with Murphy and her husband.
She said she’s always admired YoFresh as a gathering point and a safe space.
“There are many of us who just want them to be able to make it in this terrible situation,” Stoller said. “They could have just retired and done whatever — sat and read books, or taught. But they really, really believe in the community, and building their community.”
For those who are looking to support the cafe, Murphy said YoFresh has set up a GoFundMe page. They’ve also started a progressive gift certificate program, where customers who purchase certificates today can cash them in for five dollars more one month after purchase, and ten dollars more the month after that. Additionally, customers who tag the cafe in social media posts can receive a $2 gift card to the store.
Murphy said she’s already rearranged YoFresh’s layout in anticipation for the day when the cafe can officially open again. The tables are all six feet apart.
“This is our baby,” she said. “We love it. We love the customers. We don’t want to close our community-based place.”