Creative collaborations with South Side chefs and small businesses on the menu for campus dining vendor Chartwells

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As a supervisor for Hutchinson Dining Commons’ front-of-the-house team in 2015, Maisha Oliver remembers running daily revenue reports on each dining station and thinking someday she’d like to operate her own independent business out of the location.

This fall, after working her way up in different dining roles across campus, Oliver’s dream became a reality when she and her husband Rahim Mohammed opened Hutchinson food station Kabob-IT with business development and marketing support from the University’s dining contractor, Chartwells Higher Education.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I’m like, ‘oh my god, this is my dream and it’s really happening for me,’” Oliver, a Hyde Park resident, said. “To know that you’ve spent so much time trying to work on something and to actually finally see it manifest is the greatest joy in the world.”

Over the past year, Chartwells has partnered with more than 20 local chefs and businesses, on everything from sourcing their products at the University’s 14 retail locations and featuring them in dining halls to hosting pop-up chef series and a hospitality career workshop for Chicago Public Schools high school interns. Six local, minority-owned dining businesses like Oliver’s now operate out of Hutchinson Dining Commons alone.

Oliver says since she opened Kabob-IT, she’s had coworkers approach her about following a similar path and launching their own businesses. “It’s motivating,” Oliver says. “The more we’re around people who are striving for their goals, it sparks that part of ourselves to seek our own goals.”

Kabob-IT will also be one of three Chartwells-affiliated local businesses to participate in the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Small Business Growth Program (SBGP) in the coming months. The program pairs minority-, women-, and veteran-owned local businesses with teams of UChicago student consultants to develop and implement strategies for tackling their specific business challenges. The goal is to help small businesses on Chicago’s South and West Sides break the $1 million revenue mark, so that they can drive economic growth in their communities. 

These collaborations are just one example of UChicago’s broader UChicago Local initiative, which leverages the University’s role as the largest private employer and purchaser of goods and services on the South Side to create economic opportunities for local businesses and residents. Through its Buy Local, Hire Local, Live Local, and Partner Local strategies, the initiative supports growth for small businesses, career pathways for residents, and community-focused economic development in the University’s nine-neighborhood focus area.

“In recent years, the University has refocused a significant amount of energy looking at economic inclusion and how we as an anchor institution on Chicago’s South Side can be a better neighbor. UChicago Local’s work with partners like UChicago Dining and Chartwells really embody that,” Alyssa Berman-Cutler, executive director of community development within the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, says. “The approach that we've taken on the business side is both really working directly on our own policies—on making sure that procurement opportunities are out there in the neighborhood, for instance—as well as working directly with businesses to help support them to grow.”

Kwasi McManus has always prioritized community partnerships in his work but when he started in his role as Chartwells Resident District Manager at UChicago last year, the University’s distinct commitment to buying from and partnering with diverse, local vendors and entrepreneurs inspired a whole new level of engagement—and creativity.

“Out of the 300 plus schools that we service, UChicago was very unique in requiring this level of partnership and commitment,” McManus, who lives in Bronzeville, said. “We took a complete grassroots approach.”

Across campus, Chartwells’ additional community partnerships have included a new effort to exclusively source produce from Chicago farmers of color; a celebrity chef series at campus dining locations featuring notable locals such as author and Netflix’s “Bake Squad” star Maya-Camille Broussard; and broader cultural events such as a Lunar New Year takeover in Woodlawn Dining Commons and a Black History Month panel about the intersection of food, art, and Black culture featuring local artists, writers, and chefs like long-time UChicago partner Cliff Rome.

Rome, a renowned Bronzeville chef and business owner who’s been affiliated with the University in a variety of roles for the past decade, opened a second on-campus dining location this fall in the Law School. By partnering with South Siders like him, Rome says Chartwells and the University more broadly are strengthening local professional and cultural networks and forging a deeper emotional connection between campus and community.

“Using food as a vehicle for conversations creates an incredible platform for us to be able to dialogue about things that matter and it’s the community that matters,” Rome says. “I think that Chartwells has started to put their finger on the pulse and they’re tapping into key stakeholders in the community and we just happen to be one of them so it makes the lift a lot easier, you know?”

By emphasizing partnerships with and sourcing products from local, diverse chefs and business owners, the University now serves as a model for other Chartwells-affiliated universities, McManus says, with board members even visiting from other countries to see how other institutions might replicate UChicago’s engagement success and best community-facing practices.

The University’s approach additionally breaks down barriers, McManus said. One local chef, for instance, told McManus his takeout orders from University students have spiked significantly since he cooked and spoke at a Chartwells event on campus.

Plus, it’s just smart business.

“My number one priority basically is to show proof that partnering with local communities adds value to the student experience, to our clients, and it creates jobs,” McManus said. “It gives back to the community.”

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