Entrepreneurs team up to spur local sales, jobs

3rd Coast Skinny Dip
Photo courtesy Jeff DeLaCruz of Northlight Studio

If Chicago entrepreneurs Jacob Elster and Ben Heins have their way,   more companies will be serving local foods and beverages in the break room soon.

Elster started Crop To Cup coffee to help support family farmers in Uganda, while Heins’ Bean & Body makes health-conscious coffee and tea beverages sold in cans. Both are hoping to jump on the locally produced food bandwagon to get products made by small Chicago-based companies noticed by corporate customers.

We know there’s a demand there. We just haven’t been able to serve it, said Heins, whose beverages are sold in Whole Foods stores.

Calling their initiative Get Local Chicago, Heins and Elster have tapped several other food and beverage companies and a local distributor, Mark Vend, to bring a collection of local products to the corporate market.

The initiative will likely appeal to corporations with so-called green committees, because it involves expending less energy in transporting the goods to customers, said Daniel Stein, co-owner of Mark Vend in Northbrook. Bringing together several products on one delivery truck is pretty clever, Stein said. It’s a way to get the Chicago-based products to market that didn’t have a distribution base.

The collaboration was unveiled in June at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting. While entrepreneurship has been in the national spotlight recently as politicians and officials recognize its importance in stimulating the economy and creating jobs, the Chicagoland Chamber and other organizations are turning up the volume locally.

Entrepreneurship and innovation are what can catapult our region going forward, said James Tyree, chairman and chief executive officer at Mesirow Financial, who has served as chairman of the Chicagoland Chamber for the past three years. Often small businesses are the ones that more readily embrace change. It’s not just the strongest people or the smartest people. It’s people who understand you can’t do things the same way as before, Tyree said.
At the chamber annual meeting, Tyree handed over the chairman’s gavel to Deborah DeHaas, Midwest regional managing partner at Deloitte LLP, making her the first woman to hold the position in the chamber’s history.

Among the attributes that will help grow the area’s business community, DeHaas said, are Chicago’s centralized location, diversified economy, world-class transportation and its innovative and collaborative spirit. I have seen the power of what we can do as we come together and work as one, she said.

Get Local Chicago is banking on that same team spirit and city pride. It’s not the first time Elster and Heins have brought people together for a common purpose. The two created Odd Pairs, foodie events where pairs of independent foodmakers compete to dream up the best oddish dish, Elster said.

Odd Pairs allowed us to share our creativity, Heins said. For all the providers, the inspiration is food is more fun when it’s shared. Get Local Chicago builds on that success and brings in larger companies as customers, he said.

The timing seems right to Terry Opalek, partner at Terry’s Toffee, which makes 15 flavors of toffee sold in its own retail shop and wholesale to about 90 stores. People love it because it’s local, he said. During the past year, more customers have been saying, I’d rather buy local, he said.

But the idea of teaming up for greater sales isn’t new.   At Northbrook-based Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, the company’s Tastes of Chicago catalog offers Malnati’s pizza plus items from a dozen Chicago food companies, such as Garrett’s Popcorn, Eli’s Cheesecakes, Vienna Beef and Carson’s Ribs. While Malnati’s has been shipping frozen pizzas for about 20 years, it branched out 15 years ago when Eli’s Cheesecakes asked Malnati’s to handle fulfillment for their mail-order sales, said Sally Glunz, director of mail order and catering at Lou Malnati’s.

Pizza is still the top seller, but offering a variety of products helps boost sales because many customers buy more than one brand, Glunz said. Malnati’s fulfills more than 100,000 Tastes of Chicago orders per year and as many as 10,000 a day during the peak holiday period, Glunz said. To keep up with the demand, the company staffs up during the holidays, and often will have 100 people packaging orders, she said.

“For us smaller companies to make a difference, we have to partner up,” said Shashank Goel, founder of Chicago-based Ineeka Inc., which makes 28 different flavors of environmentally and socially responsible tea, plus a green-tea beer. The company’s products, available at Whole Foods and other retailers throughout the country, are made from organic and biodynamic whole-leaf teas and herbs grown at family-owned farms in the Himalayas.

Ineeka last winter added stickers to its packages that said Support Local to boost awareness of the company’s Chicago base, Goel said. We found a lot of people want to promote and help local companies but don’t always know which companies are based here, he said.   At the end of the day,[(buying local] is creating jobs within the local economy, Goel said.

Despite their unique propositions, the companies participating in Get Local Chicago share some common values, Goel said. “We’re all entrepreneurs. We’re all hungry. And we’re all looking to make a difference.”