The Bottom LineThe Bottom Line

Formerly Incarcerated Women Launch Worker-Owned Food Business During COVID-19

What an interesting time to launch a new business.

Two worker-owners prep meals for ChiFresh Kitchen, a new worker-owned co-op founded by formerly incarcerated women in Chicago. (Photo by Kai Brown, courtesy ChiFresh Kitchen)

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Editor’s note, March 16, 2021: This story originally published in May 2020. Not even a year in, ChiFresh Kitchen is prepping 500 meals a day. But that’s not even the half of it: in December 2020, they bought a 6,000-square-foot building that, once renovated, will let them prepare 5,000 meals a day.

Last Friday, with her car in the shop, Edrinna Bryant woke up and called Kimberly Britt to ask for a ride into work. It was the first day that they would be serving meals to folks as ChiFresh Kitchen, a new worker-owned commercial kitchen cooperative on the West Side of Chicago.

“We were so excited about the fact we were going to cook our first meal together and people can taste it,” Bryant says. “That’s so exciting to me as a young black mom who was incarcerated. For my child to know that his mom was in a situation that felt like the end of the world and look at her now.”

They made jerk chicken strips and red beans and rice, with onions and peppers. It was a practice run, and they distributed that first set of warm meals out to friends and family — and got some feedback they used to improve their recipes.

“Ain’t no food going to go wasted here,” Bryant says. “Each day each of us will pick somewhere on the South Side or West Side and bring some food to people who need it.”

Bryant and Britt met while incarcerated, as were all five founding worker-owners of ChiFresh Kitchen. On Monday, the worker-owned cooperative delivered its first meals as a business, to Hope House in the nearby North Lawndale neighborhood, as part of COVID-19 relief efforts. Those first deliveries marked the culmination of a year and a half of organizing, business planning, legislative advocacy and fundraising.

Being structured as a worker cooperative means the founders share equally in the management of the business as well as in the economic benefits — but those aren’t the only benefits they have in mind.

“We’re trying to empower formerly incarcerated women, give ourselves a second chance and show others they can do the same thing out in the community,” Britt says. “We’re not limited to incarcerated women but that’s going to be our focus for now. I feel like it can affect the crime rate when people see that they can do something different, especially the youth, and single parents, when they see our faces attached to what we’re doing.”

In some ways, this story started around 150 years ago, when the first black cooperative businesses started to emerge in response to Jim Crow. From deeper roots in earlier mutual aid societies and intentional black communes sprung early cooperatives like the Grand United Order of the True Reformers — a black-owned mutual insurance company organized in 1881, with one hundred members and $150 in startup capital, according to Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.”

Fast forward to October 2018, and the ChiFresh Kitchen chapter of this story began at Camille Kerr’s house, with Kerr, Joan Fadayiro and Amiel Harper, during a meeting to begin talking about starting a worker-owned cooperative led by formerly incarcerated women. Kerr owns a consulting firm that supports worker-ownership of businesses across the country. Fadayiro is a Chicago community organizer who started Cooperation for Liberation, a study group on worker cooperatives in the Black community. Harper owns a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and businesses in Chicago.

Joining the group later was Angela Yaa Jones, a Chicago community organizer and researcher focusing on cooperatives. Kerr ended up putting Fadayiro, Harper and Jones on retainer with her firm to help form a cooperative business owned by formerly incarcerated women — who continue to face disproportionate levels of formal and informal discrimination in the job market, resulting in 46 percent of formerly incarcerated black women facing unemployment, a rate twice as high as formerly incarcerated white women.

The team started meeting weekly, at Blue Lacuna, a black-owned co-working space in Chicago, to research and scope out possible lines of business for the cooperative. The idea was to identify a sector where there would be ample business opportunities for the co-op to earn a living wage, at least $15 an hour, for the worker-owners. The ultimate target size for the business was around 100 worker-owners, but something that others could replicate in other parts of the city or other cities.

Fadayiro recruited a panel of three advisors, all formerly incarcerated women, who would weigh in on the team’s work over the next year and a half. They would meet monthly with the team to go over business ideas and models. Other organizers from the community organizing and cooperatives worlds would join along the way.

“We started from the entire list of NAICS codes,” the official list of every type of business there is, Kerr says. “We were looking for what are the industries where people can create a lot of good jobs, with businesses that people can own, something where people can serve their community. We didn’t want to put too much criteria to have no options left.”

It came down to three options. A laundry business, which the advisors noted would likely not be the kind of work that would be most appealing to the formerly incarcerated women they knew. A logistics and cold-storage business that would provide “last mile” delivery services, which promised a very lucrative business opportunity — but the advisors noted such a business would encourage efficiency at all costs, and that didn’t feel right for a business owned by formerly incarcerated women. After putting it out for a vote in June 2019, the advisors endorsed the third option, a food business.

From June to December 2019, the team would scope out a full business plan, mapping out potential clients and narrowing down to a specific business model. Rather than a restaurant, which has some of the highest failure rates and relies on individual consumer demand, they went with a prepared meal production model, providing daily meals to institutions around Chicago.

That was enough to present to a cohort of potential founding worker-owners — the advisors had the option to join, but were re-established in their post-incarceration careers and were more interested in passing along this opportunity to others who were still looking for something they could be passionate about. Collete Payne, one of the formerly incarcerated advisors, who leads the Visible Voices program at Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, reached out to Britt, who then invited three others she knew, including Bryant, to come with her to the first meeting in December 2019.

“I had never heard about cooperatives before,” Bryant says. “I like the fact that it’s a group of us, we all have different experiences and we put our brains together to do this.”

One other person showed up to that first meeting — the only man in the group. All five ended up staying on to become ChiFresh Kitchen’s founding worker-owners. The plan initially was to meet every other week, but the founding group felt like it was necessary to meet weekly if they were to launch by June, as initially intended.

“Camille laid out her vision, and it was just about what we can add to her vision to make it our vision,” Britt says.

Britt and Bryant had both experience working in nursing homes, so they wanted to have that as a potential clientele. School breakfasts and lunches, while it may be difficult to break into the contracting process, is a much desired market for the group.

“Even my child doesn’t eat school food, so I thought that was a very good idea to give them healthier food that tastes better and looks better,” Bryant says. “The thing is the presentation isn’t very good so kids don’t even want to try.”

They also spent a lot of time working on the menu, working closely with Chef Nyah Griffin, who came on as another advisor once it was clear it would be a food business.

“We spent a lot of time deciding what we want to put out there,” Britt says. “We wanted fresh, healthy, good tasting food.”

Bryant, who also previously worked at the Metropolitan Club on the 66th and 67th floors of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, seems to be as thrilled with the idea of providing meals served at her kid’s school as she is with teaching her co-owners how to cook.

“Everybody has their own thing that they bring and that’s part of what makes us unique,” Bryant says. “But I’m going to make sure the cooking instructions are on the walls.”

Britt, who will be focusing on the supply chain management and deliveries side of things, is looking forward to growing the business.

“During our meetings we weren’t just thinking of ourselves, we were thinking about other incarcerated women who can come in the future, they can come in and put in the work and we can vote to approve them as co-owners,” Britt says.

In order to fuel the co-op’s growth, ChiFresh Kitchen plans to take advantage of Illinois’ Limited Worker Cooperative Association Act, which became law last year after unanimously passing both houses of the state legislature. The commercial catering company became one of the first handful of entities to incorporate or re-incorporate under the new law as Limited Worker Cooperative Associations, or LWCAs. It’s similar to conventional entities like Limited Liability Companies, or LLCs, but for worker-owned cooperatives.

ChiFresh was one of four businesses to walk in together on March 13 to the downtown Chicago office of the Illinois Secretary of State and file incorporation documents as an LWCA. It was supposed to be a much bigger event, with even more businesses filing documents and many founding members present.

“That was right as the movement toward shutdown for COVID-19 started to become imminent, so some folks pulled out for the safety of their members,” says Renee Hatcher, who has been providing legal assistance for ChiFresh Kitchen and others as assistant professor of law and director of the Community Enterprise & Solidarity Economy Clinic at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Hatcher says she and the law students at her clinic are currently helping six more businesses either forming or converting to LWCAs.

Kerr mentions ChiFresh Kitchen is now working with students from Hatcher’s law clinic to get certified as a minority- and women-owned business, which would help with getting contracts from public agencies. The law clinic is also helping with the legal paperwork for ChiFresh Kitchen to raise capital directly from its community — using a provision created under the legislation last year.

“It was a very important piece of the bill and provides an important mechanism for folks,” Hatcher says. “We’ve seen in Illinois that most co-ops so far are microbusiness, and a lot of times the securities regulations are restrictive for those businesses to solicit community investment.”

Under the provision, Illinois LWCAs can raise capital from their members, and their members can include Illinois residents outside the business itself but who are intimately familiar with the business — provided that workers inside the business retain control over business decisions. It’s a provision that is based on — and, Hatcher says, improves upon — similar provisions in around a dozen or so other states.

Although the paperwork isn’t quite finalized yet, ChiFresh Kitchen has already received its first community investment — from Kerr, who invested some windfall cash from selling her family’s home in Oakland when they moved to Chicago.

Deposited in ChiFresh Kitchen’s new bank account at a community bank on the South Side of Chicago, the cash is now serving as working capital to purchase equipment, supplies, pay wages and start paying a lease while waiting for revenues to start rolling in for free meals distributed to the community, paid for by food relief partnerships funded through philanthropic and public dollars. The group’s first location is inside The Hatchery, a relatively new 67,000 square-foot commercial kitchen facility with multiple tenant spaces, community market spaces and a community development financial institution all onsite.

With her personal investment, Kerr is banking not only on the trust and relationships that have gotten ChiFresh Kitchen this far, she’s also banking on those relationships to make sure the co-op can grow and someday return her investment. Breaking up big contracting relationships like those between Chicago Public Schools and its suppliers, allowing local schools to contract with local suppliers like ChiFresh Kitchen, would go a long way toward that. It will take a massive coalition to advocate for that kind of change in Chicago.

“If you want to keep small businesses alive, break up the contracts,” Kerr says. “We’re trying to not do this alone, since a lot of us are working on food in the worker co-op space, and there’s overlap with the food sovereignty community.”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.

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Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

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Tags: chicagocovid-19foodincarceration

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