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#Only1Chicago Spotlights
Photo by Nolis Anderson
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#Only1Chicago
Spotlights

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In Chicago, every neighborhood is home to a diverse community of small businesses. Meet the people behind some of the city’s most beloved spots, from the first women-owned brewery in the state to a multi-generational candy store.

Thousands of small businesses, #Only1Chicago

Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck: Women & Children First

“Our feminism informs everything we do in the store. Not only the books we order, but how we treat our staff, how we run the place and our relationships within the community.

It’s about amplifying the voice of underrepresented people. That’s really the focus of the store and it’s evolved as feminism has evolved.

We had a pretty big existential crisis back in March because what sets us apart from an online retailer is that we offer an in-person experience. We have hundreds of events every year with big-name and local authors. So suddenly, everything we’d been saying we do best was no longer safe to do. It was really difficult for us to try and pivot and discover new reasons for why we matter and why we exist.

Our focus remains on creating community, but within a virtual space. We try as hard as possible to replicate an in-person experience in the online platform. And we leaned into our politics even more. There were no federal mandates to support our most vulnerable people, so we recognized we were the ones who would have to do that for each other.”

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Craig & Tanya Richardson: Batter & Berries

“Going out to breakfast was something we did when we were courting, mostly because of her career’s time constraints.

My wife [Dr. Tanya Richardson] was in residency when we met, so we went on breakfast dates to try to get time together. She looked at me one day and said, ‘Do you think you’d maybe like to open a breakfast place?’

My wife likes designing stuff, so she did all of the interior decoration, even down to hand-making the tables. She said, ‘It’s gonna be bright. It’s going to be energetic.’ This is a place where you wake up, where that energy hits you when you walk through the door.

Going into this pandemic, Black business owners were already underrepresented. That’s another reason why we continue to try to fight to survive.

Being a Black business owner, it’s an awesome responsibility and opportunity to encourage others. You want to stay around and continue to inspire. And it’s important for our city and its development for Black-owned spaces to thrive.”

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Danielle Mullen, Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery

“When I opened Semicolon, I wanted to put together two things that are emotionally effective, which are literature and art. And for me, street art has always been much more psychological than your normal art you’ll find in museums. So that's why I had the different Chicago street artists bring themselves to the space.

I never expected too many other people to be in the store. The store was created for my liking and my liking only. I just wanted somewhere to sit around and read books and look at the art and feel good about myself. And if other people liked it, great. If they didn’t, it wouldn't be a big deal because I like it. We didn’t expect to be where we are now.

We have people from all walks of life that come in and they say the exact same thing: It feels like home, and they just want to sit and hang out all day. If you have never felt at home anywhere else, you will definitely feel at home here.”

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Edward Gisiger: Kit Kat Lounge

“The Kit Kat Lounge name comes from Cabaret. That’s the kind of place we wanted to create, where anyone could go and leave their worries behind and enjoy a night out.

We’ve been in the same location the whole time. We were here when there was a dirt road next to us. My partner Ramesh and I lived in the neighborhood. We had a mixed crowd from very early on and that’s only progressed and gotten more diverse over the years. You can go in there and see every kind of person having dinner together and enjoying themselves together.

When the pandemic first happened, Kit Kat was not known for its to-go food — it’s a destination. The whole experience of coming and seeing the divas was our thing, so we had to quickly think of something that was going to make us different.

It was our 20-year anniversary in November. But we need people’s help. We are a local, gay-owned business. We’re part of Chicago’s history and culture. It’s not just about Kit Kat. All of the family-owned restaurants in Chicago are struggling and we need support to make it through this.”

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Z.J. Tong: Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute

“I came to the U.S. in 1998 and went to grad school to study communications. It might sound cliche, but when asked why I wanted to study here, I said I wanted to be a bridge between two countries.

Many Americans may not know China that well. Their only exposure to China is visiting Chinatown. And they might not be able to get to know the culture and the people. So I developed a cultural program for Chinatown and for Chicago to help bridge that gap.

It’s a way to show people there are other people in the world who live just like them, and have their own arts and traditions, and they can feel close to a culture that might otherwise feel very foreign. Particularly with COVID when people can’t travel internationally, it’s so important to have these neighborhoods where people can still experience another culture.”

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Dominique Leach: Lexington Betty Smokehouse

“The food truck came into play when I wanted to prove to myself that I could maintain the salary I was earning by doing work independently. A few months later, the truck was set on fire.

It was rough, but I like to say it lit a fire under me to find new ways beyond the truck to keep growing the business. I opened the three restaurants within 10 months.

I was classically trained in French and Italian cooking. I’ve just always been good at barbeque, it’s always been a hobby of mine and it’s very important to my family. This is just me bringing my culture and what we grew up eating to the rest of the world. I’m just happy and lucky that people have been so receptive to it.

It means something to me to be living proof of what’s possible. I come from nothing. My mom is a single mother and she struggled. And I work hard to be that proof to other people. You can make something out of nothing. I just had a little savings and put it into the truck and despite obstacles, I’m still standing.”

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Stephanie Hart: Brown Sugar Bakery

“I got burnt out on technology. When I started in 1984, it was a real creative space. And over time by 2000, it had gotten super corporate and inflexible. So I was looking for something else to do. And at the same time I missed my grandmother, I missed the way that she baked for us.

So I started practicing at home. I wanted that particular cake, which was a pineapple coconut cake. And the nature of me kind of being a technical person, it really bonded with me. I like reading recipes. I like numbers, formulas. So it was like a big experiment for me and I had a ball doing it.

I think that what I had the opportunity to do in my experimenting stage was to develop a cake that made me feel good and it made other people feel good and there is power in food.

I think that food is emotional. When you make something with love and intention, you are creating this item because you want people to have an experience that you had that was positive. I think Brown Sugar Bakery is part of so many families — we call them Brown Sugar Babies. It's those kinds of connections that make me feel really, really good.”

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Michelle Foik & Wendi Cabo: ERIS Brewery and Cider House

“It’s the first brewery in the state of Illinois that's owned and operated by women. I mean, people talk to us, they’re like, you two ladies decided to do this? And we're like, yeah. And I'll be honest with you, I didn't have an issue with it. I wasn't scared. I think the first time I ever got nervous was when my business partner Katy Pizza and I opened the doors and I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening now.’

We bought the building in July 2015. It was the first building we looked at. It's an old Masonic temple that was built in the 1900s. It was then converted into a Korean church. And when we walked in, it's just this big, beautiful open space with windows and lights and it's so cool.

We have been just inundated with people that believe in the same things that we believe in, that want to support a woman-ran business. It’s quite amazing, we see a lot of diversity within the clientele that come in the doors. It's great to be welcomed by everyone.”

“The neighborhood has been so supportive of us and we see a lot of new faces even through all of this. And seeing the same people come in all the time, you get to know them, you get to know their families. It really means a lot. And they've really been there for us through all of it.

We just want everyone to come in and have an experience that means something to them because it means a lot to us to do everything that we're doing.”

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Erick Williams: Virtue

“Virtue is geared toward being an unapologetically Black space that would be open and inviting to anyone that walked in the door, and would represent the best and most cherished parts of our culture through food and the treatment of people.

We didn't know if we were going to be busy, we didn't know if we would be celebrated. If the truth be told, we really didn't do it for any of that. We wanted to put an emphasis on giving opportunities to the Black and brown community, but we wanted our doors to be open for people who wanted to learn and grow. And the community embraced it. The outpouring of love and support, it's overwhelming thinking about it.

[In April], I called my business partner and said, ‘Hey man, I think I want to just focus on these first responders.’ I know I'm tired, both mentally and physically, and I can't imagine what it's like to be in a hospital. It was in the thousands of meals that we put out, and you know, it felt really good. It felt like a really rich experience at a time when we needed to shift gears and we needed a lift ourselves.”

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Marco Rodriguez: Dulcelandia

“My parents are from Mexico. They immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and started Dulcelandia in 1995. They saw it as an opportunity to start bringing in some of their favorite candy and piñatas and some of their culture and nostalgia.

I remember being a kid and looking at all the piñatas and candies that were coming in from Mexico and being astounded by it. But it took a lot of my parents’ time away from being with their family. Once I became part of the business, I realized that my parents sacrificed everything they could in order to give me and my siblings a better life and better future than what they had.

We expanded into Little Village because it was the center of Mexican heritage here in Chicago. Little Village has a very strong tradition of entrepreneurship. All the stores you see down 26th Street are typically small businesses that are owned by families. I think it's a neighborhood that is open for everyone to come and visit, to explore and to support the local businesses and all of our neighbors.”

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