Philip Ghantous: Bringing Cuban Flair to the Loop

philip ghantous
Photo Credit: Jeremy Lawson

Celia Cruz’s razor sharp voice echoes around Cafecito as I walk in the door. Philip Ghantous spots me from behind the counter and waves apologetically. He’s got a lot on his plate — father of three young children, husband, and probably what Chicagoans are most thankful for, founder and owner of the little Cuban café that has become a South Loop favorite.

He stops by a table on his way to me to check on a guest’s satisfaction. After she gives a thumb’s up he rushes to my seat.

“Sorry if my eyes drift to the counter,” he said between sips of his expresso. “I have a girl training. Just want to make sure she’s all right.” That quick precursor to our chat revealed his philosophy on good business and the reason for his success -– treat employees with respect and maintain passion for your work.

In July 2008 he opened Cafecito, a Cuban café, at 24 E. Congress Parkway on nothing but “good credit and a hope.” The place has since garnered awards for “Best Cuban Sandwich in Chicago” and, for all it’s worth, my vote for best coffee in the Loop. Funny, considering Ghantous is neither a trained culinary artist nor Cuban. He’s just a driven Illini who has an affection for Cuban culture, having picked up the interest after a visit to Miami years ago.

Born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, he moved to Chicago in 1996 and worked his way through the Columbia College theater program. His initial plan was to move to New York and get a Masters in theater from NYU. But before he packed his bags he met his wife here, what he calls “the best thing that has ever happened” to him. Eight months later they were married.

He spent the next few years working in corporate America –- marketing, sales, recruiting, etc. -– “trying to figure out how to love and support” his wife and soon-to-be kids. By 2005 his first son was born, and Ghantous entered business with his brothers-in-law running a pool hall.

“To be honest, doing that work…I hated myself. I never saw my family,” he said. So he left the corporate world and began waiting tables. A couple years later, and with a second child in tow, Ghantous was happily working on Rush Street and taking home solid tips every night. Around this time, he realized the ultimate freedom and expression could be achieved by owning his own restaurant. His goal was to bring a much-missing Cuban option to the Loop. After months of scoping for buildings, he found his spot on Congress Parkway.

“I opened Cafecito on credit cards,” he laughed, realizing the American irony in that reality. It was intended to be a small menu, “five sandwiches, five types of coffee”, like the typical corner Cuban café in Miami. Now patrons can order full entrees, salads, soups, and more. I pass by the place five days a week, and there’s rarely an open seat, there’s always a line, and Ghantous is usually around. This success, he says, is a testament to the power of determination and his “confident, borderline cocky” approach to business. He hopes to expand Cafecito to a wider base, planning on opening another location in Chicago and one in Los Angeles where he has family to help run it.

He has no plans on relocating himself, though. He has too much love for Chicago. And considering his passion for work, it’s no surprise that his favorite area of the city is just where his popular café rests: downtown.

“Just watching people, tourists, walking around downtown is amazing,” he said, sipping his expresso. “Watching them take photos, check into hotels. They come here from all over the world. It reminds us of how great our city is.”

Ghantous admitted he never expected to own a café while he was an aspiring actor at Columbia. And while he’s an artist still – of the culinary sort – his motivation is the same.

“Someone becomes an artist because he wants to give the audience something, teach them something,” he said. “I believe the same is true about hospitality. I want to teach this area about Cuban flavors in a casual environment.”

About Cheryl Thomas

Cheryl grew up in rural northern Indiana, where everyone is somehow related to a farmer and horse and buggy stations are in the Wal-Mart parking lots. She moved to Chicago a few months after graduating from IU and has since fallen hopelessly in love with the city. She likes trying new deep dish places, exploring used bookstores and dive bars, chatting with strangers on public transit, and all sorts of writing - especially fiction and playwriting.

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