Aspiring Food Entrepreneurs Attend IJ Clinic Event for Advice and Inspiration

Desirée Sanders wants to encourage healthy eating and an appreciation of African-American culture by selling “Southern-inspired crops” like okra and watermelon from her urban farm on the South Side.

Aaron and Kyle Goldstein are brothers and military veterans who have worked on-and-off in the food business since they were teenagers and now plan to open a barbeque restaurant in the suburb of Franklin Park by July 1.

And Charlotte Stoxstell is a retired elementary school principal thinking about approaching an established restaurateur to propose a partnership for a vegan soul food restaurant on the South Side.

These are just a few stories of the 200 participants at the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship’s April 27 event, “Recipe for Success: Starting and Growing a Food Business in Chicago.” The free daylong symposium offered inspiration, practical advice, and legal tips to food entrepreneurs. It evolved out of last year’s symposium, “My Streets, My Eats,” which focused on the rewards and challenges of mobile food businesses. This year’s event expanded to include all kinds of food endeavors, including traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, packaged food products, and urban farms.

Beth Kregor, Director of the IJ Clinic, struck an encouraging tone at the start of the event. “I love to be in a room like this one, packed with dreams,” she said. “I know that the people in this room have a lot of plans for an exciting and delicious future…we’re here for you.”

The IJ Clinic helps small businesses in Chicago that are big on ideas and initiative but lack resources, usually in the way of money and expertise. Last year’s mobile food event was in response to the frustration of many entrepreneurs who wanted to operate a food truck or cart but were stymied by an endless list of city laws; the clinic’s advocacy has led to more conversation with the city, lots of media attention, and even some progress in changing city regulations for mobile food. Still, Kregor said, there are a lot of restrictions on mobile food that don’t make sense, and a lot of work for the clinic to do.  

Working on those issues made the IJ Clinic faculty and students “mini-experts” in Chicago’s rules for food business licenses, Kregor said. At the same time, the recent recession has inspired a lot of people to reinvent themselves and enter the food industry; though it’s notoriously difficult, food is a constant in life and a staple of community and culture.

Because the attendees were so varied in interest, the clinic did its best to present a wide range of speakers and panels to try to address every need. Arel Brown, owner of the restaurant Original Soul Vegetarian in the Chatham neighborhood, Bob Scaman, CEO of organic produce provider Goodness Greeness, and Paul Hardej of FarmedHere produce, grown in an expansive indoor “vertical farm” in Bedford Park, talked about how they started and grew their food businesses and mistakes they made along the way. Stefanie Garcia, a Local Forager and Competitive Strategy Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, Midwest Region, and Scott Lerner, founder of energy drink Solixir, talked about selling a product and getting it onto store shelves. Brand expert Paul Earle of the Leo Burnett advertising agency gave an entertaining presentation about marketing.

IJ Clinic students played a big part, too, headlining sessions on the details of food business licensing and permits, finding a space for a food business, and hiring food service workers.

It was a great opportunity for the students to present in front of very big crowds, Kregor said. Ben Montañez, ’13, was part of the team that gave a presentation on hiring employees. To prepare, he and fellow student Michael Lanahan, ’14, researched local, state, and federal rules regarding employment, and familiarized themselves with issues such as minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance.

Montañez said he felt the energy in the room as he gave his presentation. “It was invigorating to be a part of helping individuals to realize their dreams, and in the process create employment, economic development, and opportunities,” he said. “Several people came up to speak with me after the presentation, and we discussed their businesses or their planned businesses. I loved hearing each unique story and plan, and seeing the sparkle in their eyes that comes from taking chances and creating something new.”

For lunch, everyone took a break to enjoy barbeque, pizza, and tamales, among other offerings. Most importantly, the entrepreneurs met each other and made connections.

Sarah Weitz of Ravenswood came in large part for the networking, she said. She and her husband quit their jobs to focus full-time on their catering business; they were on the verge of opening a new sandwich truck, called The Fat Shallot.

“I figured it would be a great way to meet some people in the industry,” said Weitz, who traveled the country searching for the perfect food truck before deciding to have one custom built to adhere to Chicago’s very detailed specifications. Right now, she and her husband are going through the licensing process.

“Maybe there are other people going through the same process,” she said. “I think it’s great the University of Chicago is supporting this and providing this as a service.”

Participants were treated to both practical advice and inspiration, sometimes from the same speaker. For example, Hardej, the vertical farmer, warned the entrepreneurs to “assume you’re going to screw up a lot of things, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money.” He told them to always plan for unexpected costs, and to treat investors’ money like your own. But he also encouraged them to stand up to fear.

“Do not be afraid of failure,” Hardej said. “If you believe in something, if you love something, just do it.”

Earle, of Leo Burnett, congratulated those in attendance for having the bravery to dream.

“I think it’s inspiring you’re all here,” he said. “I really believe entrepreneurship is the future of our city, and in fact our country.”