Jaime Garza e Ishto Juevez en Sabor a Café. Foto: Parker Asmann
For months Elio Erraez remained committed to his vision. Once, sometimes twice a week he would wake up before the light emerged on the horizon and begin the trek. Still cold from the briskness of the morning with a tall cup of coffee against his icy hands, he headed west on I-90 to a small town just outside of Rockford, Illinois. With his small, short bed pickup truck he meticulously chose and piled all of the reclaimed wood he could find until he could barely see out of his rearview window. After the tenth trip he was finally satisfied with all the wood he had collected and stored it in the basement. He told himself with confidence that the stage was going to be built, there was no question about it. Little did he know he would completely transform Sabor a Café in the process.
On paper Sabor a Café is a Colombian restaurant quietly tucked away just to the west of the major intersection at Western and Peterson Avenues. From the outside the brick facade of the building is covered by a black banner with colorful letters, not much to intrigue passersby speeding past from the comfort of their cars. But for those who look a bit further and make it inside, the restaurant offers up much more than just traditional Colombian food.
After making it through the initial doorway, a small hallway leads off to the right and into the back room where the music and art take control. The wood paneled walls are covered with vibrant artwork as roof tiles hang from above, giving the room the feel of a cozy house somewhere in the Americas. One of Elio’s best kept secrets is that the majority of the artwork comes from artists and creatives in Ecuador. With multicultural representation at the top of his list of concerns, he couldn’t help but include some of the talent from his homeland. Although Elio no longer lives in Ecuador, his yearly trips back to his childhood home allow the Ecuadorian in him to radiate from all the beautiful artwork.
At the age of 23 Elio came to the United States to live with his father in Chicago. After a year of living with him Elio moved into a new building where, unbenounced to him, his future wife was also living. A native of Colombia, Martha lived in another unit in the same building as his and invited him over for dinner one night. What started as a simple dinner date turned into Elio feeling as if he had been transported to South America. Martha had won his heart, and her cooking was the exclamation point.
“Afterwards I sat down with her and she told me how she used to go to a small village in Colombia where her aunt and grandmother used to live,” he explained with a smile almost too big for him to continue speaking. “So on school vacations she was back in that village and she collected all of this information from her relatives who had a small restaurant. She learned to understand the very traditional cuisine of Colombia, it was unique.”
And Martha was no stranger to the restaurant industry. At the youthful age of 19 she opened up her very own restaurant in Colombia before she eventually made her way to the United States and crossed paths with Elio. As Sabor a Café opened in 2000, things began to change a couple of years in as an opportunity surfaced for Elio to become an integral part of the restaurant. But could Elio see himself taking a different course in life?
Around 2002 Martha approached Elio and let him know that her brother was looking to sell his share of the restaurant. To this day Elio is adamant about how much he loved his job at the House of Blues hotel, where he previously worked and where he had the opportunity to interact with the many cultures and musicians that graced the concert hall. It was everything he could have ever wanted and he was surrounded by more music and culture than ever before. How could he leave?
“At first I was timid, I couldn’t picture myself doing what I was doing at the hotel over at this restaurant. It was a big leap for me. We didn’t even have a stage initially,” he said.
What people don’t know is that Elio is a visionary. When he sets his sights on something he’s passionate about, you better believe that he’s going to work as hard as he can to achieve his dreams. He’ll be honest, at first Sabor a Café wasn’t quite what he hoped it would be, he just couldn’t see himself being as happy as he was at the hotel at the restaurant. But what Elio could imagine was music, all different styles of music blended together under one roof.
“When I came to the restaurant I walked in and kept asking myself what I could change,” he said. “What should I do to this place? So I started to change around the decorations that didn’t go with my vision and I told myself that music was the main priority for me.”
After drying out the wood that he carefully picked for nearly four months, Elio finally had his vision set and contacted a carpenter to construct the stage that he had in his head. His vision didn’t stop at the stage, though. He went on to reach out to an artist to help him with the framed drawings that now line the walls above the stage. It was clear from the get go that Elio saw something in Sabor a Café, he saw a place where different communities, cultures and traditions could intersect with each other. He saw an opportunity for something progressive.
“At first it was missing some artistic component and I thought that we could expose some art and hold some workshops and try to work with the community,” he said. “This restaurant can’t be a regular restaurant, it needed to be a cultural space, and so I started to get in touch with different musicians and brought them over to the restaurant to perform.”
Sabor a Café was no stranger to music, evident in the Colombian music that accompanied the traditional Colombian flavors that wafted from the dishes Martha had developed over the years. After all, 70% of the clientele at the restaurant was Colombian and they had figured out the perfect combination to keep people coming back. But Elio saw something that encompassed much more than just Colombia or South America, even if it meant losing some of their clientele.
“People weren’t happy when I wanted to switch up the music here,” Elio explained with his big brown eyes opened wide. “Like I said, 70% of the clientele was Colombian, but I had the feeling that this place had to be multicultural. It can’t be only for Colombians, it’s impossible.”
Consequently, the restaurant saw nearly half of their regular clientele leave. But that’s not the important part. What got Elio and Martha through those rough transitional times we’re the people who did stay. They dedicated themselves to supporting Elio and Martha because they knew how great the restaurant already was and how much better it could be if they stayed loyal.
“Those original people still come in today and we’re forever thankful for them,” Elio said with a sincerity that made me feel as if I was one of them. “But eventually we started to gain the presence of a variety of cultures. We started to see more African-Americans, Europeans, couples from Korea and the Philippines, from South America and Central America, everyone started to come.”
While there was no way the cuisine was going to change, Elio started aggressively pursuing musicians and artists that he thought would blend perfectly with the atmosphere he was already invested in. At times people would ask him what he was trying to do. Why had he set out to change something that had already established itself? And again, Elio saw something bigger that could touch even more people. He knew that the music that touched him as a young boy in Ecuador could also affect people here on a personal level, and he wasn’t about to stop short of his vision.
Elio discovered his love and passion for music at an early age with the help of his grandfather and grandmother who were musicians. Without access to radio broadcasts in Ecuador, at the age of 14 he slowly discovered music collectors in his hometown and started to create a community of his own that encompassed different types of music and various cultures from all over the world. With his eyes closed, his head tilted back to the ceiling and his hands intertwined across his heart, he put it simply, “I just absolutely fell in love with music and the things it could do man.”
Hidden behind his long black hair tightly pulled back and tucked into a yellow ball cap, Elio’s passionate love for music and people can only truly be experienced once you get to talking to him. In the process he’ll nearly jump out of his seat to explain how important multiculturalism and inclusion are to his decisions. After all, it was those music collectors that invited him into their community as a boy that shaped his outlook on life moving forward. They didn’t deny him, they invited him in and opened his eyes to all of the beauty and diversity that music can bring with the right environment.
“For me, music is the best therapy that I have in my life,” Elio said with a conviction that made you doubt any other form of therapy. “That’s music for me, man. You need to feel it. If people feel the way I do about music, they can come here and sit down and really feel the music being played inside them on a deep level. They can feel the energy and it could be a therapy. In my case, when I’m depressed, I listen to music or pick up my guitar and all my worries are gone. It’s the cure for the soul man.”
It’s this passion and genuine love for the power of music that keeps Elio motivated with his sights set on the next musician or workshop he can bring to the restaurant. All in the name of bringing people together while our society works hard to keep us apart. His hard work over the years has gotten to the point where at times he’ll have musicians contact him asking to play at Sabor a Café, something he could have never imagined in his wildest dreams.
“One of the coolest parts is having the musicians contact me,” he said proudly. “They are knocking on my door, making phone calls and sending me emails to come and play. I’ve been really lucky over the years. It seems that the first person I meet wherever I go is a musician.”
Orlando Sanchez, a distinguished Cuban saxophone player who used to and still does play with some extraordinary musicians, was one of the first musicians that came into Sabor a Café looking for Elio.
“I was in here and this guy comes in and says he’s looking for Elio,” Elio said with a laugh. “Well, I’m Elio, I told him, and he responded by saying that he was in Chicago and wanted to know if I wanted to do something with him. He gave me his music and from then on we started working together regularly. He’s an old friend now who really helped me out in the beginning.”
There’s no denying that Elio is a businessman, but he’s not the crosseyed type with dollar signs for pupils, the thought of making a profit doesn’t dictate his decisions. Musicians who come to play at Sabor a Café are not just there for a one-off. The first performance is the start of a vibrant relationship that both Elio and Martha are committed to maintaining, inviting them back weeks, months or years later as if they had played just the night before.
“I think the atmosphere and the energy are what attracts musicians to come play here and people to come enjoy an evening here,” he said. “Not only is the sound good here, but we make a point to respect and appreciate everyone who comes in. I will say I’m a businessman, but I really respect and appreciate the art and the musicians.”
At heart Elio is a simple man with an extreme passion for art, music and people. And best of all, he’s happy doing what he can to bring different people together under one roof to experience something they may not have ever experienced before.
“I’m not thinking about the money,” he said. “As long as I can share and contribute to our culture and our community, I’m happy. Obviously I need money to be able to continue with my passions, but that’s not my main motive. I love it. When I can live out of this restaurant doing what I love, continuing to take care of my kids and supporting my family, that’s all I need to be happy.”
As for the future, it’s no surprise that Elio has big plans for Sabor a Café that include a brand new stage, a bigger area for dancing and even some new equipment that would allow him to record live performances to keep logs of every musician that comes through the restaurant. Elio’s vision is never ending and constantly evolving into something bigger and better. Maybe one day they might even be grouped together with other multicultural spaces renowned for their world music like the Old Town School of Folk Music or Mayne Stage.
“This place is eventually going to look like a venue,” he said as he pointed to the walls that would be knocked down to free up more room. “I want to include another space where people can dance. I want to include another large wall filled entirely with art. Anybody who wants to expose their art, they’re more than welcome to come in and speak with me. I just want to get as many different cultures and traditions exposed as possible that people might not know about.”
If the current state of Sabor a Café is any indication of what the future will hold, there’s nothing to worry about with Martha’s culinary expertise inviting everyone to come back for more, allowing Elio to focus 100% of his efforts on the arts and entertainment side. But most importantly, their hearts are in the right place. Elio and Martha have found something unique in Sabor a Café that gives them the ability to intertwine their talents with their passions.
“Everything will come together at the right time, not too soon and not too late, but just at the right moment. I just want to keep giving people and musicians the opportunity to share their work and their passions in a place like this, because that’s what it’s all about. It’s passion, that’s what it is man, and I love it.”
Gonzálo Córdova. Photo: Parker Asmann
Parker Asmann is a 2015 graduate of DePaul University with degrees in Journalism and Spanish, along with a minor in Latin American and Latino Studies. He is currently residing in Chicago while focusing on issues of social justice and human rights. He is a member of El BeiSMans Editorial Board.