Odyssey: Boomtown

Chicago’s boutique food businesses get a jump-start from the poor economy

The switch from teaching high school to making gourmet ice cream is hardly a conventional career move. But Kris Swanberg, owner of Chicago-based Nice Cream, had little choice. Sidelined by grim employment prospects after losing her job last summer, Swanberg started churning ice cream—just for fun—using an ice-cream maker she had received as a wedding present. Before she knew it, the free samples she was giving away to friends and family ended up in the dairy cases of Swim Cafe and The Green Grocer in West Town. Nice Cream started to look like a successful business—and no one was more surprised than Swanberg herself. “If I hadn’t gotten laid off,” she says, “this would have never occurred to me as a possibility of a job.”

It’s often difficult to see the silver lining in the current economic recession, but, in fact, Nice Cream—like many other small gourmet food businesses—is actually getting a boost from the poor economy. Swanberg knew she had a great product: The organic local ingredients are attractive to today’s food-conscious consumer, while irresistible flavors, like vanilla bean with blueberry pie, and chocolate with sweet basil, add to the appeal. But the down economy convinced her to take a chance. “When you don’t have a lot of money or prospects to make a lot of money, it’s almost easy to take a financial risk,” she says. “You don’t have a lot to lose.”

Shrinking incomes and rising food prices are also changing everyday eating habits, creating a demand for premium products that people can make on their own. Jessica Volpe’s year-old pasta company, Pasta Puttana, is a perfect example. “Restaurants are emptier these days,” she says. “People want to eat at home.” Which could explain why her fresh, homemade pastas, such as red chile linguine and herbed tagliatelle, are a hit at area farmers’ markets. Last year, customers balked at the high price—$10 for two servings—but now eating fresh pasta at an Italian restaurant is unaffordable for many people, and consumers hungry for a gourmet meal are willing to “splurge” on Volpe’s pasta. “My customers know that spending $5  for fresh pasta is a value,” she says.

Likewise, Tara Lane and Dana Benigno are hoping to capitalize on the recession trend of eating at home with their wholesale company, Sweet Girl Desserts. “We noticed that people are entertaining at home more,” says Lane, a former pastry chef at Blackbird and Avec. “But there’s anxiety about desserts.” So Lane and Benigno created a line of kits for easy organic gourmet desserts—chocolate mousse and, eventually, beignets and soufflés.

Before the meltdown, people pampered themselves with massages, vacations, designer clothes, and other high-ticket luxuries. Now the trick is to find low-cost indulgences. This point is not lost on Kirsten Anderson, whose Ukrainian Village catering company, Glazed Donuts, has taken off in the past year. She makes gourmet doughnuts with mostly organic local ingredients—think oatmeal chocolate stout and fresh peach—and sells them for $3 a pop. That’s a high price for pastry, no doubt; but customers are looking for reasonable ways to feel good, and doughnuts are an easy way to do that. “Maybe you can’t afford the best car or the best house right now,” Anderson says. “But you can afford the best doughnut.”

* * *

Here is where you can find the products mentioned in the story above:


Green Grocer Chicago »
1402 W. Grand Ave.

Provenance Food and Wine »
2312 W. Leland Ave.
2528 N. California Ave.

Z & H MarketCafe »
1126 E. 47th St.

Swim Cafe »
1357 W. Chicago Ave.

Dill Pickle Food Co-op (scheduled to open in October) »
3039 W. Fullerton Ave.

City Provisions deli (scheduled to open in September)
1820 W. Wilson Ave.


Dirk’s Fish & Gourmet Shop »
2070 N. Clybourn Ave.

True Nature Foods »
6034 N. Broadway

Green Grocer Chicago »
1402 W. Grand Ave.

Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand »
66 E. Randolph St.

Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks »
5625 W. Howard St., Niles

Green City Market (both Wednesdays and Saturdays) »
1750 N. Clark St.
Business office phone: 773-880-1266


Green Grocer Chicago »
1402 W. Grand Ave.

Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand »
66 E. Randolph St.


Swim Cafe »
1357 W. Chicago Ave.

Bite Cafe
1039 N. Western Ave.
(Made Friday mornings and usually only last through the weekend.)

Independence Park Farmers Market (every second and fourth Sunday through October 11) »
South side of Irving Park between Springfield and Hamlin
W. Irving Park Road & Springfield Avenue


Illustration by Tonwen Jones/Colagene.com



Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.