AJ’s Java Joint in South Elgin is looking to be the “anti-Starbucks” as the first sugar-free coffee shop in America.
The cafe opened last week in the former home of AJ’s Hangout at 586 Randall Road near Caputo’s. Owner Lance Bell, who pulled the plug on AJ’s Hangout after about four months, wants to put a healthy spin on coffee shop offerings.
“The mission is to be all the things that Starbucks isn’t,” Bell said. “We’re the anti-Starbucks.”
So while the cafe can make caramel macchiatos and similar drinks containing a candy bar’s worth of sugar, it has sugar-free versions.
It’s accomplished by using syrups sweetened with monk fruit and sugar-free whipped cream. There’s also a rainbow of different colored sweetener packets to add to your coffee. While it’s not advertising itself as totally dairy-free, AJ’s Java Joint uses unsweetened almond milk by default.
“We can make a vanilla latte just like at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, the difference is we’re not at 28 grams of sugar, or even one,” Bell said.
The healthier approach is similar to a previous concept in the spot offered.
AJ’s Hangout was a low-carb restaurant that offered foods without sugar, gluten, wheat and soy.
Bell envisioned it as a community gathering place with a large dining room and big tables for large groups.
The problem was that no one was hanging out in the Hangout.
“Two-thirds of our customers would grab food and take it to eat at home,” Bell said. “When you walk into a place this size, and there are only one or two tables with people, it feels awkward.”
So just a little less than four months after opening, Bell shut the doors and brought in some help to reconceptualize as a coffee shop.
“Coffee is the community draw,” Bell said. “We just opened eight days ago, and we now have people hanging out in here with laptops.”
Regardless of the restaurant’s name, Bell’s concept from the start has been “business as a mission.” He said the mission was to provide healthy food and give back to the community. AJ’s Java Joint will continue to work with local charities Lazarus House and Fox Valley Christian Action, donating a percentage of sales.
The mission extends to the shop’s vendors as well.
AJ’s is purchasing beans from HOPE coffee, a Texas-based Christian coffee company with direct trade relationships with farmers in Honduras and Mexico. The company invests profits back into the countries where the coffee is grown.
“They lift people up in countries like Honduras, these Third World countries,” Bell said. “So business as a mission is at the forefront of what we’re doing with them. Basically, drink coffee, save a life.”
The shop will still stock many of its own and third-party keto-friendly food and drink options. In the dining room, an open mic area, complete with a guitar and banjo, and a prayer room for quiet conversation and meditation have been added.
Despite his first concept not working out, Bell refuses to be deterred.
“This was a calling, and when it’s a calling, it’s about more than you,” Bell said. “You know, it’s like Edison with the 1,200 light bulbs that didn’t work to get to the one that did and all those other cliches. You gotta keep going at it until you figure it out.”