Ground Floor: Chef makes new home among Cedar Rapids Public Library's books

Volunteer opportunity led to business opportunity

George Ford
Published: March 4 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:08 am in

A year ago, Jeffrey Sills had no idea that he would soon own and operate a cafe within the new Cedar Rapids Public Library.

But the avid reader and would-be English teacher has made himself right at home among the library’s stacks.

Having recently moved back to Cedar Rapids after spending 10 years cooking in Chicago, Sills was helping with sandbagging efforts during last spring's flood when he got to talking with a fellow volunteer. It turned out the man was co-owner of Brewed Café in New Bohemia and Brewed Awakenings on First Avenue and was planning to open another shop within the new library.

“We initially discussed an opportunity for me to run the space at the library,” Sills recalled. “But then we decided I could just buy it.”

Sills, who is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts – Scottsdale, Ariz., was planning to teach English at Mt. Mercy University. He abandoned that idea to open Press Cafe.

“This is more my style,”Sills said.

Press Cafe serves a variety of pastries, sandwiches, salads and soups in addition to coffee drinks, tea, Italian sodas and other beverages. The cafe serves as a gathering spot for library patrons, caters meetings and special events, and is becoming a popular spot for downtown workers to get their morning coffee or lunch.

Press Cafe also has a drive-up window that opens at 7 a.m. on weekdays (later on weekends).

Sills, who worked in some of Chicago’s top kitchens and most recently served as Chef de Cuisine at Sprout Restaurant, said his new kitchen has presented one challenge. Because the library was designed to achieve LEED platinum certification, the building’s energy-saving features preclude using some heavy-duty commercial restaurant equipment.

“I can’t have a hood system,” he offered as an example.

Unable to bake, Sills has compensated by sourcing fresh-baked bread from Betty and Bobo’s Better Breads at NewBo City Market and sweets from Deluxe Cakes and Pastries in Iowa City.

“We’re becoming famous for our chocolate chip cookies,” he said.

With limitations to the food he can prepare, Sills has focused on the products and techniques needed for Press Cafe’s beverage menu. Instead of getting home from work at 2 a.m. and reading cookbooks like he did as a chef in Chicago, he reads about coffee and teas.

“You can easily be as nerdy about coffee drinks as mixologists are about booze and cooks are about food,” Sills said.

Press Cafe boasts state-of-the-art coffee and espresso machines, and Sills and his beverage director, Matt Barnhart, place an emphasis on sourcing the highest quality roasted coffee beans and artisanal teas.

One of the things Sills likes best about Press Cafe’s location is finding a comfortable spot to sit with a book when he is on break. There is one aspect of the library’s collection that is particularly close to his heart.

“The library did a phenomenal job stocking up on good cookbooks,” Sills noted.

At A glance

  • Owner: Jeffrey Sills
  • Business: Press Café
  • Address: 450 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
  • Phone: (319) 739-0499
  • Website: www.presscr.com

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