In Chicago, every neighborhood is home to a diverse community of small businesses. Meet the entrepreneurs behind some of the city’s most beloved spots, from a new marketplace for local artisans, a brewery that started in an apartment living room, a multi-generational candy store, and more. These are stories you can only find in Chicago.
Only in Chicago
Shermann 'Dilla' Thomas: Chicago Mahogany Tours
Shermann Thomas is the historian behind Chicago Mahogany Tours, which offers tours of Bronzeville, Pullman, and Bridgeport. He is also the popular @6figga_dilla on TikTok and Instagram.
“When you understand the history of something, you just respect it so much more. I think it connects us to the past. It’s one thing to see a picture or see a name on a street sign or a building, but it’s not personal.
Telling the story of how that thing or that person came to be or came to prominence, I think hearing those stories keeps history relevant. Overall, history’s just a blueprint that leads us and can, if used properly, direct our paths to a bright future.
I want Chicago Mahogany Tours to be a vessel to highlight the South and West sides. Chicago’s the greatest city on earth, but we don’t always promote the whole city. There’s way more history to be found beyond downtown, and I think highlighting that history will lift the city up.”
Angela Barnes: Nobody's Darling
Angela Barnes co-owns inclusive cocktail bar Nobody’s Darling in Andersonville with Renauda Riddle.
“We definitely wanted to make sure that the space was women-centered. And for us, that meant women— not just queer women, but all women — felt comfortable being there. We started with that as our center point and expanded outward.
Since college, I’ve been very much interested in Black women poets and writers, so I went into my library and pulled some of my poetry books off the shelf. And this Alice Walker poem Be Nobody’s Darling was one of the dog-eared pages, and I realized this is our statement, this is what we want.
We wanted people to feel, when they came into our bar, that they can be who they are. They can show up as their authentic selves and we will welcome them. And we will give them a wonderful drink. I don’t think Alice Walker was really talking about drinks, but I feel like that’s part of it.”
Dominique Leach: Lexington Betty Smokehouse
Dominique Leach is the chef and owner of Lexington Betty, with several locations in Chicago.
“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.”
Eric Williams: Bronzeville Winery
Eric Williams is the founder of The Silver Room boutique in Hyde Park. His new venture, Bronzeville Winery, is scheduled to open March 2022.
“There’s nothing like [Bronzeville Winery] in this neighborhood. We have to leave our community to go somewhere else. So my thought is, let’s just build that here. The same quality, the same level of service that you would get somewhere else, but build it in our own neighborhood.
The idea is that it takes just one thing for a person to see that something’s possible. For me, one of the things that can come from this wine bar is that the landscape of the street changes and people see possibilities. That’s my hope, is that other people will be incentivized and inspired to start something in Bronzeville.
It’s about neighborhood pride. We talk about the history and the legacy of Bronzeville and what this used to be. How do we take some of the beauty of the past and recreate that now in a contemporary way? I just want to instill a sense of pride in the neighborhood and the community and what we’re doing.”
Erick Williams: Virtue
Erick Williams is the owner and executive chef of award-winning Virtue in 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.”
Tynnetta Qaiyim: Black Ensemble Theater
Tynnetta Qaiyim is the Chief Operating Officer of the Black Ensemble Theater in Uptown.
“I think that a key driver of racism is the lack of understanding about other people and cultures and how these cultures have contributed to the fabric of America. At Black Ensemble, we bring people together. We tell stories primarily around African-American culture and lives, but those stories are American stories. That’s American history, and we share all of that in a way that’s engaging.
We are more than just a live performing arts venue. Black Ensemble is also embedded in the community through educational outreach. We reach about 10,000 children in a normal year through our programs. We are very much integrated into the Uptown community. Without that community, we couldn’t survive, we wouldn’t thrive. And we want to make sure that we are doing right by the community that we’re in.”
Shirley Kienitz and Jenn Stadler: Wolfbait & B-Girls
Shirley Kienitz and Jenn Stadler run Wolfbait & B-Girls in 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
Edward Gisiger: Kit Kat Lounge
Edward Gisiger runs drag brag and restaurant Kit Kat Lounge in the Northalsted neighborhood.
“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.”
Mike Moreno Jr.: Osito’s Tap
Neighborhood: Little Village
“My father started Moreno’s Liquors in 1977. It was the first Latino liquor store in the city of Chicago. And we’re really proud of that, and for 44 years we’ve put a lot of attention and focus on customer service. When I was younger, I started off as a stock boy — filling coolers, taking orders, stocking shelves. And then I worked my way up from there.
I looked at the neighborhood and Little Village had been lacking something like this for a long time. We had not had a bar open in this neighborhood for over 30 years. So when we first opened Osito’s Tap, a speakeasy craft cocktail bar in Little Village, we got a lot of positive feedback and publicity.
Little Village is truly special. You come here and you’re getting a taste of Mexico. It’s the largest Mexican neighborhood in the entire Midwest, the second largest in the country. You’re getting that authenticity. There’s a lot of rich culture and heritage.
When you walk into the bar, you’re gonna get a little bit of that heritage all around — the music, the cocktails, the names of the food, the artwork that comes directly from a famous artist in Oaxaca. Even the name itself is Spanish. Osito means ‘little bear’, and Osito was my family dog, a small chihuahua who I used to joke looked like a little black bear. Everything is paying homage to our heritage and culture.”
Angélica Varela: Semillas Plant Studio
“Around March 2020, I got laid off from my job. I would just wake up early every morning and water my plants. Watering your plants is so therapeutic that it’s literally like medicine. And it’s one of those things that just makes you feel good, whether you have anxiety or depression, which are things that I was dealing with a lot.
And I think that it just grew into an obsession of learning more about plants. I have always known that I wanted to open up a business. And then I asked myself, why not now? We don’t have anything like this in the Pilsen area or on the south side, which is where I mainly grew up.
Semillas is ‘seeds’ in Spanish, and seeds were a big part of my life growing up. It’s a big part of my culture and basically takes us back to our roots. My grandma always planted her own seeds and would have us go to the backyard to get chiles or tomatoes or whatever it was. My family is Mexican, my grandma came here to the United States with eight kids. Pilsen was the first neighborhood that they lived in and everything started from here.
The day of the opening, the line was just wrapped around the block and I could not believe it. I think that it made a lot of the people in Pilsen happy to see a Latina open up a business here. And we sold out of everything that day, it was amazing. I feel like I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life. The community just responded in a way that every community should. I think that’s why Pilsen is such a big and popular neighborhood, because everybody looks out for each other, and I think that’s what it showcased that day.”
Javier and Jose Lopez: Casa Humilde Cerveceria
Neighborhood: West Town
“We started on the second floor in the living room of our apartment in the Hermosa neighborhood. From the beginning, we pursued the brewery as an actual business. The whole process was literally like something you’d see at a brewery, just on a way smaller scale.
We definitely love to incorporate our culture throughout the brand. For example, Nopalli is our prickly pear farmhouse ale. As kids, we would drive to Mexico every year, and we would pick up the prickly pears on the side of the road. Our dad loved them, and we would all just be eating prickly pears in the van. It was our way of incorporating our childhood memories.”
— Jose Lopez
“We officially launched at District Brew Yards in 2019. Being part of craft brewing in Chicago is pretty cool. Everyone is very open and inviting. Whether it’s business or accounting or recipes, we’re just helping each other wherever we can. Usually in other industries you see each other as competitors, but the beer industry in Chicago is different.”
— Javier Lopez
Nadya Henríquez: ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo
Neighborhood: Humboldt Park
“At Mercado del Pueblo, we have 15 vendors and they’re a mixture of races and backgrounds — African-American, Mexican, the LGBTQ community. We have vendors selling organic honey, terrariums, macrame, jewelry, vegan skincare, artesanias mexicanas, knitwear, and so much more.
One of the things that was important about this program was that during the pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs. For some of them, being able to sell their merchandise or their handmade products was their only source of income. Our vendors receive five months of free rent, so we’ve been able to support a lot of artisans and local artists.
The Mercado also allows vendors to test the waters to see if people are liking their products or help them come up with something new. Once the vendors finish their time with us, then the idea is that we can help them transition into a permanent storefront. That’s the way we want to repopulate this area of Paseo Boricua.
And it’s been great for the community. It has become a gathering space. The mercados are a part of every plaza in South America, it goes along with what Puerto Rican and South American residents are used to having in their country. So it’s a perfect thing to have over here. It’s a way to help vendors and support the economy of the area.”
Pablo Ramirez and Teresa Magaña: Pilsen Arts and Community House
“Both Pablo and I were raised in Pilsen and Little Village. Especially for kids growing up in neighborhoods like ours, we wanted to expose them to artwork that they would normally have to leave Pilsen to see.
We started out running a for-profit gallery, but through the years it evolved into a community gallery and community space where we mentor and support other artists. We basically tell anybody that has a creative idea or endeavor that needs support or resources, we will assist in trying to get that done.
We want the community to know that this is more than just an art space. It’s a resource center for creators and a creative community. And that’s part of the name, Pilsen Arts & Community House, because what do you think of when you think of home? You think of support, you think of consistency. You think that the door is always going to be open for you.”
— Teresa Magaña
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
Eduardo Arocho: Paseo Boricua Tours
Neighborhood: Humboldt Park
“For a long time, Puerto Rican history in the city has been unknown or erased. Most people don’t really know much about Puerto Rican history at all, because it’s not taught in schools. I want to make sure that people know our contributions and show them the transformations that we are making in this neighborhood and how important they are.
Since 1995, when Paseo Boricua was inaugurated with the giant gateway flag, we’ve grown. In the six blocks, we now have seven Puerto Rican restaurants and over 50 murals. It’s one of the largest concentrations of public artwork. And murals are one of the best ways to tell the story of the community.
It’s usually an eye-opening experience. People are really astonished to see our efforts to create a very beautiful and colorful neighborhood that welcomes all and accentuates our Puerto Rican culture.”
Marco Rodriguez: Dulcelandia
Neighborhood: Little Village
“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.”