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.
Only in ChicagoSpotlights
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.” — Sarah Hollenbeck
Shirley Kienitz and Jenn Stadler: Wolfbait & B-Girls
Neighborhood: Logan Square
“We were both selling our own individual women’s wear collections in the early 2000s. It was difficult to get the big stores to pick up a small brand. It was hard to meet their minimums with the kind of ethical manufacturing we wanted to do. So we joined forces to create a place that would facilitate young designers like ourselves. We just wanted to create a place where you could be an artisan and have a venue to connect with customers as well as a community of artisans that could share their expertise and experiences.
I really enjoy the communal atmosphere of our store, it’s just such an intimate experience. It’s about people connecting, people expressing; it’s very different from the commercial commodity of the big picture fashion industry.
The pandemic was especially challenging for a business where the main draw was your in-real-life experience. Our website was a very small informative website that had been the same for like a decade. We rebuilt it early in the pandemic to include the Maker’s Marketplace so our artists could have an opportunity to reach customers online. There’s no charge to them and they receive 100% of the sale. We’re hoping to lift like-minded businesses and people up — that’s our priority over profit for sure.” — Shirley Kienitz
Dominique Leach: Lexington Betty Smokehouse
Neighborhoods: Pullman, Near West Side, Galewood
“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.”
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.”
Danielle Mullen, Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery
Neighborhood: West Town
“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.”
Angela Leung: Hing Kee Restaurant
“I’m a second generation business owner. My parents have been involved in Chicago’s Chinatown for quite some time now, being serial entrepreneurs. They’re hard-working people — they work probably 100-hour weeks, seven days a week.
I do everything from making the noodles to business admin stuff. I definitely grew up at the restaurant. It was such a huge part of my identity and always a calling to be a part of the food business.
Our staff, they watched me grow up, they’re my family. And their safety matters to me the most. So it was kind of a no brainer that when the pandemic started, that we’d close our doors temporarily. That was definitely a really hard financial step that we had to take, but it was clearly the correct one for our staff safety.
I think what makes Hing Kee special is all the family recipes that are made with love. We make all the fillings, the dumpling skins, and the noodles from scratch. This is very much a family establishment. It’s hard to put into words, but it is quite special.”
Antoine and Arianna Scott: Atmos Coffee Shop
Neighborhood: Humboldt Park
“We both love coffee, we had our first date over coffee. And I’m Puerto Rican, so coffee is just the center point of everything. It’s very much a culture thing for me.
We wanted a space where people can feel safe, where people can feel welcome. As we learned more about the coffee industry, we realized one, how very white it is and two, how uninviting it was. So we’ll be doing job training for youth in the community. Our goal is to be able to remove a barrier for someone of color that wants to get into the coffee industry. This is a skill that they can take with them wherever.” — Arianna Scott
“It’s been great. I feel like the community has just welcomed us with open arms. In the short period of time, we now have regulars, which is really cool. We’re becoming a part of people’s lives in the community.” — Antoine Scott
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.”
Thai & Danielle Dang: Haisous Vietnamese Kitchen
“I always say I have one foot in Vietnam and one foot in America. I wanted to go back to my roots. I wanted to cook what my mom taught me, what I grew up eating. I am so honored to be able to do that and do it in my own style, in my own way.
The food that I create here is literally a representation of what I grew up eating in Vietnam. Every single guest that comes through our door, we want to give them something like I would cook for my family.
The Chicago dining scene is such a culinary destination. It has so much diversity. We have chefs that are pioneers here. Knowing that I was looking up to these people and now here I am, part of it — it’s such an amazing feeling.”
— Thai Dang
Kelly Cheng: Sun Wah BBQ
“My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong, and we started on Argyle Street in about 1987. Their mission was to make fresh homemade food and let people enjoy it. And over the last 10 years in the Broadway location, we have slowly started educating people about what real Chinese food tastes like.
I started working at the restaurant with my parents when I was about eight years old. It was something that you had to do because it was your duty. But by the time I finished my MBA and was attempting law school, I was burned out. I quit and moved to Hong Kong. I was traveling around Asia, and everywhere I went, it was all about eating. And I finally realized that I like work and I like the atmosphere of the restaurant.
It’s been an odd year. And there’s a lot of animosity right now for a lot of Asians. I think that throughout the last decade or so we have done quite a bit in teaching people about our culture and our food. And a lot of our customers have realized, wow, these guys are just like us. They have a family that they care about. They have food that they want to share. It’s just like every other family that’s out there, you know?”
Erick Williams: Virtue
Neighborhood: Hyde Park
“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.”
Marco Rodriguez: Dulcelandia
Neighborhood: Little Villlage
“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.”
Amy Li: Paragon Books
“I helped open this new location here at the Zhou B Art Center. And since we sell art books, it worked perfectly. The founders are Chinese-American artists, and it’s a whole community of contemporary artists from all sorts of backgrounds. It was just the perfect symbiotic relationship. I’m also very grateful for the arts scene here in Chicago, because if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think our brand of bookstore would really be sustainable.
In terms of Asian history that’s not related to World War II, usually it’s not really learned in American high schools. We want people over here to know what Asia is now. Not just what was, but what is. And we’re hoping that with this new location, people can stumble across us and they learn something. We’re a bookstore about art and humanities, but you never know what you can find in our space that might interest you. “
Kirti Sheth: Arya Bhavan
Neighborhood: West Ridge
“I grew up on my family’s farm in India so eating plant-based, fresh foods is all I’ve ever known. I always say I’m vegan by birth.
My mission has always been to share my love for healthy food with others. We first opened as a vegetarian Indian restaurant and then we transitioned to 100% vegan and gluten free.
We use ayurvedic spices, which are not just full of flavor; they are packed with essential nutrients and have many health benefits. Even my desserts include spices, which give them a surprising Indian twist.
Chicago is a very diverse city with lots of different cultures, which can be seen first and foremost in the diversity of the restaurant scene. You can get anything on Devon Avenue. There are so many different ethnic foods and international markets. It was my dream to own a restaurant here, so I’m proud to say that we’re business owners on Devon Avenue.”
Tigist Reda: Demera Ethiopian Restaurant
“We serve authentic Ethiopian food. Our food is communal. I just like that connectedness, like you’re sharing a meal from one plate and you’re having a conversation. It just connects you organically to one another.
The neighborhood has a lot of Ethiopians, but also we have a lot of people who never had Ethiopian food. We’ve been open 13 years, but even now, half the people have never had it. So for a lot of people, it’s shocking that there’s no silverware. We can bring it out if you need it, but this is how we eat it. And most people enjoy it, it becomes fun.
[The COVID-19 situation has] been a good learning experience. I mean, from the creativity side, it’s been amazing. The first pop-up we did was in Bronzeville at Boxville. In Hyde Park, we’re partnering with Connect Gallery. And we did a partnership in March with Saigon Sisters. I like working with restaurateurs, women restaurateurs, and small businesses. You really experience people truly working together for support. I think partnership will save the restaurant business right now.”
Stephanie Hart: Brown Sugar Bakery
Neighborhood: Grand Crossing
“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.”
Michelle Foik & Wendi Cabo: ERIS Brewery and Cider House
Neighborhood: Irving Park
“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.” — Michelle Foik
“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.” — Wendi Cabo
Andre and Frances Guichard: Gallery Guichard
“We got married four months before we opened the business — so we always think of the gallery as our baby. I’ve been an artist for 27 years from the south side of Chicago. My father was an artist, so painting and sculpting was just kind of a natural way of life.
Our mission is creating platforms for artists of the African diaspora and multicultural artists to exhibit. The real inspiration for the gallery was the shortage of platforms for multicultural artists. There was really just one at that time, which was the South Side Community Art Center. So the need for an African-American gallery was extreme.” — Andre Guichard
“My mom had regaled me with stories of Bronzeville’s heyday because she grew up here, literally five blocks from the gallery. It was just a no-brainer; we had to open the gallery in Bronzeville because we had to pay homage to our heritage, our culture, and the people who came before us to allow us to be where we are today.
We were very concerned, when we first got word about the pandemic. We were able to pivot and turn things into a virtual exhibition. And we were very blessed to be able to use that platform, not only for our own gallery, but also for the Bronzeville Art District trolley tour, which encompasses the largest African-American art district in the country. It’s been an opportunity not only to be able to showcase work, but also to keep artists working and employed.” — Frances Guichard
“This has been, I would say, one of the most momentous moments in our 16-year journey. It’s been a wonderful ride.” — Andre Guichard
Craig & Tanya Richardson: Batter & Berries
Neighborhood: Lincoln Park
“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.” — Craig Richardson
John Roeser: Roeser’s Bakery
Neighborhood: Humboldt Park
“I’m just trying to follow in the footsteps of my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father. I started working here at a very young age and worked my way up through every single job. This is just something I’ve always known that I wanted to do, and I feel really blessed for that.
The neighborhood has changed over the years and we’ve just changed with it. It was a predominantly German neighborhood when my great-grandfather immigrated here and opened up shop. The earlier offerings were definitely more from a Western European influence. The most popular things, we still make. And when my father came in, it started changing with more Puerto Rican and Hispanic residents. And now here I am, and it is just kind of a melting pot.
There’s been a lot of things that we’ve had to change procedurally throughout this whole pandemic. But right now, I think that people are really looking for that comfort and tradition more than ever. We’re just kind of staying the course and doing what we know how to do best — making people happy.”
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