If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t hit, Brown Sugar Bakery in Greater Grand Crossing would be approaching its annual sweet spot — spring events would just be ramping up, the bakery’s Navy Pier outpost would be welcoming vacationing tourists, and customers’ New Year’s diets would finally be abandoned. Instead, major events upon which owner Stephanie Hart and her team rely started getting cancelled in early March. Soon after, Navy Pier was closed and shuttered schools and a rising risk of infection kept Hart’s 29 seasonal employees, many of them single moms, from being able to work.
“I was like, oh my goodness, how do I keep my customers safe? How do I keep my staff safe? How do I keep myself safe?” Hart said. Working with a third-party delivery company wasn’t financially feasible so Hart decided to shut down operations entirely.
This week, with help from a small business grant from the University of Chicago and logistical guidance from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Small Business Growth Program, Hart and her team will be safely filling their first orders in months in time for Mother’s Day.
“It took me a moment to figure out best practices, social distancing, how I’m going to protect my employees. I had to think through that stuff,” Hart said. “I’ve been working on things that will employ people and get us ways to get Brown Sugar to our customers maybe a little bit differently.”
The grant was one of 182 the University recently awarded to South Side small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial assistance is one element of the institution’s South Side COVID-19 Community Support Initiative launched on March 30.
Hart says she plans to use the grant from the University to help pay employees’ salaries as they scale up the business again and cover expenses related to reconfiguring the bakery’s website to allow for online ordering and curbside pickup. They were able to iron out those details in part, Hart says, because of planning work she had done with the University’s Small Business Growth Program through the Polsky Center in 2018.
“I have been working to become the company I want to be since then,” Hart, who also participated in the recent Polsky Small Business Bootcamp online series, said. “As an entrepreneur, you’re doing a little bit at a time, but thank God I had the opportunity in 2018 to sit down one-on-one with a team of students to actually look at what it would look like to go online, what shipping looks like, look at my competition, look at how I’m going to fit in the marketplace. So now fast forward to 2020, I’m ready.”
Independently-owned businesses with no more than three locations in the University’s nine neighborhood focus area (Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Greater Grand Crossing, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Oakland, South Shore, Washington Park, and Woodlawn) were eligible to receive up to $7,500 in grants from the University. Payments are being issued quickly in order to help bridge the resource gap in this critical period as public and private sector aid becomes available. The University established the bridge fund to be used for small businesses’ general operating expenses and direct support for impacted employees, many of whom are South Side residents.
“In the long run, I know that I’ll make it, so I am so thankful,” Hart said. “I’m thankful for the fact that I will adapt. I might get a lot of bruises in this, bump my head, break a tooth — but they’ve got dentists, I’ll get it fixed.”
Support for small businesses like the University grant and Polsky programs, Hart says, will be essential in rebuilding the community in the months to come.
“It’s essential because it gives you hope. It’s essential because it lets you look toward the future,” she said. “It’s also not that easy to do because all the news, all the stuff that’s going on, wants to keep you in the present but what we’ve got to do as businesses is shake that long enough to use this as an opportunity to reset.”