Pilot Pete’s soars beyond expectations

Pete Thomas, owner of Pilot Pete’s Coffee & Treats, chats with an EC student at his coffee shop in the Elmhurst Metra station. (Photo by Stefan Carlson)

Most pilots spend their days flying above the clouds, getting coffee served to them by flight attendants. Pete Thomas spends his days in the Elmhurst Metra train station, serving coffee to hundreds of commuters each day.

Although he loves flying, Thomas, who owns and operates Pilot Pete’s Coffee and Treats, has decided to make coffee his life.

“Coffee is my way of making the world smile,” he said.

A lifelong Elmhurst resident, Thomas has used his coffee shop to bring Elmhurst commuters an experience beyond that of your average coffee shop.

Pilot Pete’s is a place that plays a different vinyl record each day, where the insulators on the coffee cups have inspiring quotes such as, “If you want to fly, you got to give up what weighs you down”; a place where the tip jar is full of thought-provoking “tips” to give the reader a positive mind-set; a place where you get a free pastry complete with a candle on your birthday.

In Thomas’ words, Pilot Pete’s is a “coffee family.”

“People come to me and vent when they’re having a rough day,” he said. “It’s possible that I know more about some of my customers than their significant others do.”

Thomas started the coffee shop in 2011 to pay his way through aviation school. Although he was only 20 years old, Thomas had plenty of experience working in cafes.

“When I was 14, I got a job at Chocolate Moon coffee shop [a coffee shop that was replaced by Elijah’s],” he said. “I told them I was 16 and just never gave them my social security card and I.D. Eventually they just stopped asking.”

After his job at Chocolate Moon, Thomas worked at Starbucks and then helped one of his friends open That Coffee Shop. Eventually, Thomas decided to open his own business, and he petitioned the city to let him open a coffee shop inside the Metro station. The city approved, and Pilot Pete’s was born.

Thomas has certainly touched his customers with his coffee. Reviewers for Pilot Pete’s on Yelp and Facebook highlight not only the quality of the products — the restaurant is the only coffee shop in the Western suburbs with a full five-star rating — but Thomas’ attitude as well.

“Pete makes delicious coffee, offers great pastries, has an amazing tea selection, and serves it all with a big smile,” wrote one Facebook reviewer.

A Yelp reviewer wrote, “I honestly thought Pilot Pete’s was a small vendor ‘brewing’ coffee from a Keurig machine. ... [But] in the 60 seconds that it took him to make my espresso, my perception about him and his tiny cafe completely changed. I actually looked inside and noticed this guy wasn’t messing around when it comes to coffee. On top of that, he was so incredibly nice. ... Not only did he genuinely ask how I was doing, he told me to have a ‘marvelous’ day.”

Thomas puts a lot of effort into making his coffee, an effort both noticed and appreciated by his customers.

“If I were to die today, I would probably have 99 percent of my customers at my wake,” he laughed. “I probably get more Christmas cards and gifts from my customers than I do from my own family.”

For Thomas, his “coffee family” extends beyond his customers and out into the broader community. For example, he is responsible for the production of “Pilot Pete’s Coffee & Treats: Elmhurst Morning Grind,” a free newsletter highlighting various events in the Elmhurst community and sponsored by local businesses.

Community service is another way Thomas engages with his “coffee family.” Every other Friday he sponsors a local charity chosen by a customer. He places a collection jar on the counter in addition to donating 20 percent of the day’s proceeds to the charity of choice.

During Chicago’s cold winters, Thomas runs a program calls “Pilot Pete’s Faith in Humanity,” where he asks his customers to bring in winter clothing donations for the homeless. Every two weeks, he is joined by some of his customers as he brings the donations — and coffee, of course — to homeless shelters across the Chicagoland area. Last winter alone, Thomas and his customers collected and delivered 3,700 jackets.

Thomas has big plans for Pilot Pete’s in celebration of the shop’s 5-year anniversary on Dec. 5. In addition to a new website, he plans to add on a coffee delivery service for the Elmhurst area. There are still a few details to work out before it can be put into place. However, as Thomas tells his customers, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”