Metra commuters are, by and large, creatures of routine. The drive to the station, the walk from parking space to platform, the choice of train car (and maybe even the specific seat)—it’s all been timed, honed and institutionalized across a multitude of rides back and forth to Chicago.
For the past forty years, the morning routine for many of those commuting out of Naperville’s downtown station has included a stop at Harry’s Café. Well before the first light of dawn and through all kinds of weather—even when they couldn’t count on the train to always arrive on time, if at all—those commuters could count on Harry Buenger for a hot cup of coffee, a pastry and a bit of friendly conversation before heading into the city.
“We’re really proud of our longevity at the train station,” Kathy says of the truck that she and her husband have run as a partnership for the past four decades. She takes care of the behind-the-scenes bookkeeping, stocking and cooking, and Harry is out front doing the serving and chatting. “We feel so fortunate to have the best and most dedicated customer base—both first- and now second-generation commuters—that has continued to support our business through a constantly changing landscape.”
Those changes over the years have included the evolving scope of the business, from a fleet of full-service kitchen trucks prior to the financial crisis of 2007 to the one familiar truck commuters know and love today. The Buengers have also weathered the persistent impact of an increasingly growing market—with everything from massive chain outlets to boutique coffeehouses springing up to compete for those same blurry-eyed and coffee-dependent commuters.
“It’s hard to keep up with the giant corporate businesses and all of the newer gourmet shops,” Harry explains. “We provide a great, no-fluff product and fast service to an audience that requires speed and efficiency in order to catch a train, all with a personal touch for each and every customer. Our motto is ‘no commuter left behind.’”
Harry and Kathy have also had to contend with several challenges to which their customers can certainly relate—namely, the rooster call of countless early mornings and the extremes of seasonal heat and cold. As a result, the Buengers of late are beginning to share yet another commonality with their customers: dreams of retirement.
A lifetime of waking up daily before 4:00 a.m. in order to see off another commuter crowd (followed by regular napping) has been as exhausting as it has been satisfying, and now the promise of relaxation—vacations and family time and taking Harry’s 1969 Chevrolet Nova SS to local car shows—is calling as loudly as that morning alarm clock.
“Our sons have grown into wonderful adults and have settled out of state, and we miss them dearly,” Kathy says. “So we hope to travel a little to see some of what we’ve missed by not taking many vacations over the years, and then hopefully settle a little bit closer to the boys.”
Until that well-earned and yet-to-be-determined retirement, however, Naperville commuters will continue to count on Harry and Kathy’s goodwill wagon as a reliable and friendly part of their morning routines—just as Harry will continue to pride himself on being able to remember hundreds of customer’s names and exactly how they like their coffee.
“Naperville has been good to us,” Harry reflects. “We own a business here and have raised a family in friendly neighborhoods and exceptional schools. Over the years, we’ve watched this community grow in leaps and bounds. And on a very small scale, we’ve fed a lot of those builders and have made a lot of friends.”