Food pantry food from Eataly? Thank this computer nerd

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
July 3, 2014

AR-140629861.jpg&maxw=300&q=100&cci_ts=20140703140211Rajesh Karmani always was a spare-time do-gooder. Now it’s his job.

Mr. Karmani had planned on earning a doctorate in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and jetting off to Silicon Valley to join Google Inc. But on his way to campus each morning, he would stop by an Einstein Bros. Bagels for breakfast. One day, the franchisee shared his frustration over throwing away fresh food every day when nearby soup kitchens would be thrilled to serve it to their patrons.

So in 2012, a year before completing his Ph.D. studies, he launched a for-profit business called Zero Percent. Its product is an app that permits restaurants to list their leftover food and sends text alerts to food pantries about what’s available. The cloud-based program tracks donations so restaurants can record them as tax deductions.

The Einstein Bros. franchise logged $1,000 in charitable donations in less than a year and expects to hit $3,000 this year, says Mr. Karmani, Zero Percent’s CEO.

An estimated 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Our goal is to take 40 percent food waste and bring it down to zero percent by feeding hungry people,” says Mr. Karmani, 31, who was born in a region of Pakistan where food shortages are commonplace.

Feeding America, a national nonprofit based in Chicago, licensed the platform last year and rolled it out in 10 cities. (The deal has since ended.) In Chicago, more than 30 businesses have become food donors, including Eataly, Hannah’s Bretzel, Sopraffina Marketcaffe and Olivia’s Market. Nationally, food-service giant Sodexo USA Inc. signed up in June. Food partners pay $30 monthly, but eventually the fee structure will shift to a percentage of net tax savings, he says.

More than 25 nonprofits in Chicago receive donations through Zero Percent, including Franciscan Outreach in Wicker Park and the Pacific Garden Mission in the South Loop. About 1,000 pounds of food is donated each day in Chicago; that’s expected to rise to 10,000 pounds daily by year-end, Mr. Karmani projects.

The Goddess & Grocer gives away mostly prepared foods, such as salads and desserts, says Meghan Shank, marketing and product development manager at Bucktown-based Goddess Restaurant Group. “We’ve also been enjoying the perks of the partnership by marketing our green initiatives to customers,” she says.

Mr. Karmani started the business with $15,000 in savings. He moved the company to Chicago last fall when it was accepted into Impact Engine’s 16-week accelerator program. In exchange for a 7 percent ownership of the startup, Impact Engine gave Zero Percent $25,000 and guidance. In June, he received $220,000 from angel investors.

“I love Raj’s passion,” says Chuck Templeton, Impact Engine’s chairman. “He’s trying to tackle a massive problem that’s daunting to anyone, but he’s got the audacity to try to make it happen.”

– Judith Nemes

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Clean Energy Trust begins $2.3 million fundraising effort

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
July 1, 2014

Can Clean Energy Trust raise $2.3 million in matching funds for a new Illinois clean tech investment fund announced last week? No problem, says Nicholas Pritzker, co-founder of the nonprofit group and a member of its board.

The four-year-old Chicago organization, which mentors early stage companies in the renewable energy sector across nine Midwestern states, will manage a new $2.3 million revolving equity fund established by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. One condition of the funding is the trust’s agreement to match the government support, for a combined total of $4.6 million.

“There’s been a sea change in awareness of the necessity of these (renewable energy) technologies, and that’s why I’m confident we’ll raise the matching funds we need,” asserts Mr. Pritzker. “People understand this is about national security, climate change, pollution and health issues.”

Mr. Pritzker won’t name expected donors, except to say that he plans to give to the fund, as do family members through the Pritzker Foundation.

In addition, Clean Energy Trust raises money throughout the year and already has earmarked some of those dollars to the new fund, says Amy Francetic, the trust’s executive director.

The new fund will support an Illinois-only business challenge on Oct. 28, Ms. Francetic says. An independent panel of judges will decide which of the finalists will walk away with convertible notes ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. The entire $4.6 million fund will be distributed to startups by the end of 2015, she says.

The organization has boosted its visibility primarily with the Clean Energy Challenge it hosts every spring showcasing early stage clean tech startups and student-led finalists. The trust, which grooms these teams for the showdown with the help of outside advisers, intends to run the upcoming challenge in a similar fashion for the Illinois-designated fund.

What’s different about this upcoming challenge is the criteria for applicants.The state requires that startups be located in Illinois and be further along in their business formation than the typical early stage firms that compose the lineup of the trust’s annual spring challenge. These participants must have a demonstrated revenue stream or established funding source and products or services already commercially available, Ms. Francetic explains.

Clean Energy Challenge winners have received $1.2 million over the years, and some 60 companies the organization is tracking have so far raised a combined total of $42 million, she says.

For example, NuMat Technologies Inc., a 2012 winner, has raised over $2 million and now has an office in Skokie with a handful of employees.

“We’re patient, too,” Ms. Francetic says. “Part of the reason we’re structured as a nonprofit is that these aren’t tech companies that grow quickly. This is a sector that includes deep science and strong engineering. We’re hopeful that in the next two to five years we’ll see some good exits.”

Mr. Pritzker concedes that it took a couple of years to understand what direction Clean Energy Trust should take. “Now it has crystallized and we have a good strategy” with the challenges and ongoing mentoring and financing advice and connections.

– Judith Nemes

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Home Trend: Plant a Living Wall

Originally published in Michigan Avenue Magazine
December 2014

The latest luxury amenity? Living walls, which are making some local residences feel like the Garden of Eden all year long.


The lobby of The Grant combines greenery with art in Aspen Mays’s Every Leaf on a Tree.

An edgy piece of modern art used to be the boldest way to stop people in their tracks when they entered a high-end residential building for the first time. Now, though, local luxury developers are moving beyond art and are decking out their public spaces with lush “living walls,” the latest design expression of the trend that’s bringing elements of the outdoors indoors.

These are not your everyday installations of English ivy coaxed to climb a trellis; rather, these green walls typically feature an array of tropical or succulent plants embedded in soil or hanging gorgeously from panels or other wall-mounted structures. They’re made possible thanks to a recent bumper crop of efficient growing and watering techniques for vertical plant systems, and landscape designers are working with building owners who want to set themselves apart in a competitive marketplace. They’re finding that many successful urbanites want to live in chic high-rises but also like being around greenery.

“Putting plants together in an artistic way on a wall is still so new and unusual that people are fascinated by it,” says Daniel Weinbach, principal-in-charge at the Chicago landscape architecture firm Daniel Weinbach & Partners. “It creates a focus the same way a piece of art does. The natural environment also tends to promote a sense of well-being.”

Weinbach’s firm worked with The Habitat Company to create an interior living wall as part of the overall landscape design for the developer’s deluxe new rental building on the corner of Hubbard and Kingsbury Streets. In the ninth floor amenity area of Hubbard Place Apartments, located across from the East Bank Club, one wall is covered in 342 tropical plants, which creates an inviting setting in an open space boasting a fireplace and groupings of couches and chairs.

Hidden behind the wall is an irrigation and drainage system requiring little maintenance, says Steve Neumann, a plant specialist with LiveWall, a subsidiary of Hortech (a nursery in Spring Lake, Michigan), which installed the vertical garden last fall. The building’s amenity level has floor-to-ceiling windows, which create a well-lit environment for optimum plant growth, Neumann adds.

After the developer McCaffery Interests and Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds purchased The Lofts at Roosevelt Collection, on Roosevelt Road in the South Loop, a complete redesign of the lobbies in the twin residential buildings in 2012 included the installation of large panels of living plants, says Pamela Austin, senior project manager of development. The 342 rental apartments and the ground-level retail stores face a U-shaped outdoor promenade with green space, and Austin wanted to extend that feeling of being surrounded by nature right into the lobbies, she says, adding, “The lobbies also have a contemporary style with lots of hard surfaces, and the green walls soften that a little.”

AMLI Residential, known for its emphasis on sustainable design, decided to add a living wall this summer to the amenities floor of its new AMLI River North property, at Clark and Hubbard Streets, says Jennifer Wolf, senior vice president of development. The building, which opened last July with 409 rental units, offers other green and healthful features, including a smoke-free environment, fresh air pumped constantly into the ventilation system, and a garden of herbs on the outdoor deck that residents can snip for use in their home cooking, says Wolf, so the project makes perfect sense. “The living wall really adds to the intangible lifestyle factor of what people are looking for when they’re choosing a building.”

– Judith Nemes

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Green City Market outpost coming to Fulton Market

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
June 11, 2014

Chicago’s Green City Market, the popular organic and natural foods farmers market in Lincoln Park, is planning an outpost in the Fulton Market area, a spokesman for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development confirmed.

Green City, which features fresh produce and artisanal foods from regional sources on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, will invite produce vendors to sell their goods at a new venue in the heart of one of the hippest and fastest-growing restaurant hubs in the city. That market could open as soon as mid-July, but the specific spot hasn’t been decided. Organizers are coordinating details with several city departments and local business groups.

The new venue will be a chef-focused market with only raw produce for sale, the spokesman confirmed. No prepared foods will be sold as they are at the Lincoln Park market.

Beth Eccles, co-owner of Green Acres Farm in Judson, Indiana, and a longtime vendor at Green City, said farmers have been briefed on the plans and were told the new market is expected to operate Saturday mornings. Mark Psilos, GCM’s associate director, wouldn’t confirm details about the new market.

“This is really exciting because we’ll get more exposure to many chefs and people who don’t come to the Lincoln Park market because it’s too far away or too crowded,” Ms. Eccles said.

The city of Chicago is eager to create a farmers market in the Fulton Market district to reinforce the area’s historic association with regional foods, the city spokesman notes. Last night, a pop-up farmers market closed down the 800 block of West Fulton for a few hours.

Part of Fulton Market Innovation District

The city has been moving forward with a Fulton Market Innovation District to boost economic growth in the area. Creation of a historic district is in the works, and one highlight envisioned in that location is the upcoming chef-oriented farmers market, the city spokesman confirmed. The historic district, with borders at Hubbard, Halsted, Ogden and Randolph, has been preliminarily approved by the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks. A public comment period is underway until the fall.

A long-term objective within the innovation district includes creation of a permanent indoor facility for regional food wholesaling and local food processing, he noted. That’s good news for regional farmers who want to sell their goods year-round in Chicago.

The 16-year-old Green City Market, at the intersection of North Clark Street and North Lincoln Avenue at the south end of Lincoln Park, has been expanding its presence in Chicago as more residents and local chefs clamor for foods grown locally in a sustainable manner that’s healthier for consumers and restorative for the land. The twice-weekly outdoor market moves indoors to the Peggy Notebaert Museum up the road after Halloween and stays there till mid-spring. Vendors are scattered in patches throughout the museum and some are only given outdoor spots because there isn’t enough room inside.

“Last season was really cold outside,” said Ms. Eccles, whose fall harvest was for sale just outside of the museum’s entrance. “One day it was 18 degrees and some of our produce was literally freezing on the table.”

– Judith Nemes

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Impact Engine’s Templeton taking year-long sabbatical

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
June 3, 2014

AR-140609972.jpg&maxw=368&q=100&cb=20140603122420&cci_ts=20140603122419Chuck Templeton, until recently managing director of Impact Engine, Chicago’s accelerator program for for-profit social entrepreneurs, is moving his family to Costa Rica for a year beginning in August.

The venture capitalist, who founded San Francisco-based OpenTable Inc. and has been at the helm of Impact Engine for the last two years, will continue to be engaged with the accelerator, as its chairman, and other aspects of Chicago’s socially oriented startup community.

Mr. Templeton, 46, is heading to Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast with his wife, Julie, and two daughters, who will be 8 and 10 when they move. They all plan to learn Spanish and immerse themselves in the local culture, he says.

“We live in a comfortable bubble in Chicago and we want our girls to be globally conscious that there are other places that aren’t like Chicago,” he says. “It’s also in the same time zone, so I can still be plugged in.”

Mr. Templeton will continue his role as a hands-on “super-mentor” to entrepreneurs in the accelerator program, but will work with only one or two from Costa Rica. In the last year, he was a mentor for all eight teams in the 16-week boot camp.

Impact Engine has assembled a roster of a dozen super-mentors from the Chicago business community and some of them will be matched up with new startups in the next round of the accelerator program that begins in September, according to Mr. Templeton. They each will receive between one-third and one-half of a percent of Impact Engine’s equity stake in the startups. Applications for the next crop of startups closes June 22.

Mr. Templeton picked Costa Rica for more than its balmy weather and world-class surfing. The country is well-known for its eco-mindedness. “My passion is around climate change and Costa Rica has interesting models of integrating mitigation solutions into their economy,” he says. “There’s some progressive educational institutions doing good work there and I plan to connect with them and bring back some good ideas.”

Linda Darragh, co-founder and a board member of Impact Engine, isn’t worried about Mr. Templeton’s departure from day-to-day operations. “He creates the most value working directly with the companies and that’s where his time will be spent” with the accelerator while he’s out of the country, says Ms. Darragh, who also is executive director of the Levy Institute of Entrepreneurial Practice at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

A new leadership team has taken over this month, led by CEO Jessica Yagan Droste. Ms. Droste brings an expertise in operations from her corporate background as former director of sustainable supply for McDonald’s Corp.’s U.S. operations. Joining her as chief investment officer is Tasha Seitz, a partner at Chicago-based venture firm JK&B Capital. Ms. Seitz previously was a managing member of Impact Engine.

Mr. Templeton, who has an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, intends to meet twice a week with Ms. Droste via Google hangout, email and phone. He’ll also schedule conference calls with one or two Impact Engine entrepreneurs he’ll mentor from afar. And Mr. Templeton will return to Chicago for special events, including Demo Day when graduates present their polished business plans to an audience filled with venture capitalists.

“Costa Rica isn’t that far away,” concludes Ms. Darragh. “If he had gone to New Zealand, we’d be in big trouble.”

In addition to Mr. Templeton, Impact Engines super-mentors are Mike Evans, Chris Gladwin, Matt Speigel, Sam Yagan, Thania Panapolous, Dennis Barsema, Steve Farsht, Troy Henikoff, Brian Lernihan, Greg Lernihan, Bob Montgomery and Peggy Eastwood.

– Judith Nemes

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Living art: Green wall installations

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
May 12, 2014

1Nicole Lerescu weathered the winter deep freeze better than most in Chicago thanks to a piece of living wall art in her Ukrainian Village home. The installation last fall transformed her kitchen and back room into a garden oasis.

It looks cool, too.

“When people come over and get closer to the art, they’re surprised to see it’s alive because it’s so unexpected,” says Ms. Lerescu, 30, a lawyer who owns the home with her husband, Nick Jakubowski, also a lawyer. “We have other art and sculptures in our home, but this is a big statement piece.”

Ms. Lerescu collaborated with Kaisa Dille, owner of K Dille Designs, a Chicago landscape and wood design firm, to create a mix of live succulent plants and dried mosses to fit into a custom 5-by-2 wood frame with an opening along the top for watering the live greens. It cost about $1,300, says Ms. Dille, who has crafted a few of these custom pieces for residential settings.

2Living walls and moss walls are sprouting in commercial office buildings and luxury condo high-rises. They’re also getting high visibility at some of the hippest restaurants in Chicago. It was a matter of time before these vertical gardens started cropping up in trendy homes around the city and among those who want to show their support boldly for eco-friendly design elements, landscapers say.

Chef and restaurateur Bill Kim has two green wall installations at his popular BellyQ and Urbanbelly restaurants in the West Loop, where they get lots of attention.

“The walls are show-stoppers,” Mr. Kim says of the installations, by Sage Vertical Garden Systems and Bottle & Branch, both based in Chicago. “Every day we get people telling us they want one in their house, and they ask us where they can get it.”

Other recent high-profile installations have popped up at Nico Osteria in the Gold Coast and Boka in Lincoln Park, where a long wall is adorned with decorative dried moss punctuated by vibrant live plants jutting out of a frame.

Molly Meyer, a Chicago landscape designer who owns Omni Ecosystems, created the massive living wall of more than 2,000 tropical plants suspended above the bar in Nico Osteria’s lounge. A sophisticated drip irrigation and drainage system hides behind the plants.


Homeowners who install these walls are likely to have simpler watering setups or none at all if they opt for a moss wall, says Ms. Meyer, who will begin offering small-scope projects for residences this fall. A 6-square-foot wall panel with plants will cost about $500, including plumbing and other structural elements, she says.

Designers have to select the right mix of plants for hanging structures based on sun exposure and the minimal amount of soil that supports the root system. Dried mosses evoke a garden feel but are lower-maintenance because they don’t have to be watered or replaced if some of them die, Ms. Meyer says.

There can be unanticipated hazards, however. A Chinese businessman and his wife who live in Chicago’s Trump Tower last year commissioned Ms. Dille to create an elegant wall of succulents and decorative mosses surrounded by an octagonal wood frame upholstered in cream-colored ostrich skin. The $3,000 artwork was hung over a bureau on a wall with a southeast exposure to outside light, but a visitor moved the framed greenery to a spot over the fireplace this past winter while the couple was in China, where they spend part of the year, says Ms. Dille, who stops by the condo every two weeks to water the plants.

“Then it got cold in Chicago and they cranked up the heat and turned on the gas fireplace,” she recalls. “It emitted so much heat the bottom half (of the plantings) shriveled and dried out.” She was able to replace the plants that died.


At last year’s Chicago Flower and Garden Show at Navy Pier, Steve Neumann, a sales specialist at LiveWall LLC, sold about 20 outdoor vertical gardens to Chicago-area homeowners impressed by the elaborate display of the company’s proprietary system of growing and irrigating plants that climb upward. The outdoor walls allow gardening buffs to grow vegetables and herbs by attaching the connected rows of plants in boxes to a wall or fence already on the premises, Mr. Neumann says. Another version is a screen on wheels, with plantings on both sides, which can be moved around on a patio or strategically positioned for more privacy, he says.


The most commonly grown vegetables include cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots and herbs.

“People who are into the local food movement are attracted to these walls,” says Mr. Neumann, whose firm is a subsidiary of Hortech, a nursery in Spring Lake, Mich. “But living walls—both indoor and outdoor—are also speaking to the cutting-edge trendsetter and early adopter who wants to wow their guests and show they’re into sustainability.”


Homeowners who don’t hire a landscaper to install the walls can expect to pay between $40 and $60 per square foot for LiveWall’s systems, Mr. Neumann says. Hiring someone to do the installation and provide the plants generally costs closer to $100 per square foot, he says. A typical outdoor panel is 4 feet high by 8 feet wide or 7 feet high by 4 feet wide.

At the Navy Pier show in March, LiveWall added an indoor plant wall display to entice landscape designers and architects to offer residential clients a way to bring nature into their homes year-round in innovative ways. Mr. Neumann reports there was lots of foot traffic, but he’s waiting to see whether orders stream in for the indoor version.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lerescu says visitors to her home are amazed at the changing personality of the artwork. “These succulents grow out of the wall and arc up toward the light. It changes every week, every month,” she says.

– Judith Nemes

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Startups and students win $500,000 in clean energy challenge

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
April 10, 2014

A student-led team that designed a turbine for making geothermal energy systems more efficient and a water purification company that eliminates the need for detergent and hot water in commercial laundries took home $100,000 each, part of a total of $500,000 in prizes today in an annual clean energy competition.

Black Pine Engineering Corp. from Michigan State University in East Lansing was awarded a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy as the big winner in the student category. The team developed a carbon-based turbine pump that removes the harmful gases from geothermal steam and lets the system use all its steam for generating energy.

EP Purification Inc., based in Champaign, won $100,000 from Wells Fargo & Co. as the best early-stage company that presented its business model to a panel of judges and others in the challenge, sponsored by the Clean Energy Trust. The company employed licensed technology from the University of Illinois to isolate the ozone molecule and use it as a cleaning agent for laundry, doing away with hot water and chemicals, saving energy and money.

Today’s event is the fourth annual Clean Energy Challenge and this year’s prize money was donated by the Energy Department, Wells Fargo, Boeing Co., United Continental Holdings Inc., Honeywell International Inc.’s UOP unit, Exelon Corp.’s Commonwealth Edison subsidiary and the Clean Energy Trust.

Boeing, United Airlines and UOP Honeywell pooled $50,000 for an aviation energy prize that was given to Spero Energy Inc., a group of students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. They developed a cost-efficient process that converts wood sources into valuable chemicals that can be used in the flavor and fragrance industries immediately, but also has great potential to be used in the production of biofuel for aviation.


The trust had $155,000 in prize money to dole out and gave $50,000 to Greenlancer Energy Inc., a Detroit-based company that developed an e-commerce platform that takes advantage of growing solar energy market, freelance engineers and installers. Contractors can use this service to find what they need to design and install solar panel systems.

Another $75,000 of the trust’s prize money went to to myPower, a student-led team from Northwestern University. The group of engineers developed a battery charger for smartphones that users can put in their pocket to tap the kinetic energy burned while running or moving around during the day. That extra power can recharge a smartphone for as much as six more hours.

A separate award of $25,000 was given to Meter Genius, another team of Northwestern students. The technology leverages smart meter data to help consumers reduce their energy use. That prize was funded by Chicago real estate developer McCaffery Interests Inc.

Go Electric Inc. was awarded $20,000 in a special prize from ComEd for female entrepreneurship; its CEO is Lisa Laughner. Her Anderson, Ind.,-based company developed technology that maintains the supply of electricity seamlessly in the event of a shutdown on the power grid. The trust kicked in some of its money to boost her prize to a total of $50,000.

Five other student groups each received $10,000.

A total of 17 student finalists and early-stage companies from the Midwest made fast-pitch presentations to a panel of judges, investors and other interested members of the clean tech community at Venue Six10 in the South Loop. The selected finalists were groomed for the competition by mentors affiliated with the trust.

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Oak Park food co-op gets cash infusion

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
March 26, 2014

An artist’s rendering of the co-op’s interior.

Oak Park’s first locally sourced food co-op grocery, slated to open in early 2015, has received a $102,000 bridge loan from an angel investment group.

The loan will enable the member-based Sugar Beet Co-op to sign a lease with Interfaith Housing Development Corp. for about 5,300 square feet of retail space at 812 Madison St. in the Grove Apartment Building, according to co-op founder Cheryl Munoz.

“Our goal is to offer local, organic, no-GMO (genetically modified organism) products year round,” Ms. Munoz said. “We’ll buy from local farmers and producers whenever possible. Our next layer of sourcing will be through local food hubs — a growing local food distribution system — such as (Chicago-based) Local Foods to continue to provide us access to the organic products our members expect when they shop at the Sugar Beet Co-op.”

The co-op has an estimated 300 members from Oak Park and surrounding communities, including River Forest, Maywood, Berwyn and Chicago, Ms. Munoz says. Anyone can sign up online and become a member for $250. Produce and other local foods will be sourced from nearby farms including Genesis Organic Growers in St. Anne and Tomato Mountain Farm in Brooklyn, Wis. Other goods for sale will include bulk items, cheeses and yogurts, eggs, meat and prepared foods.

Chicago-based Sustainable Local Food Investment Group, or SLoFIG, identified the co-op as a business that meets its mission of filling some of the gaps in rebuilding the local food system, says Teri Lowinger, a SLoFIG founding member. “Sugar Beet will be able to stock smaller brands in smaller quantities to support local producers in the local market that may not be able to supply the volume required for the larger stores just yet,” she says.

Some of SLoFIG’s members who live in the Oak Park area know the founders of the food co-op and wanted to be supportive, Ms. Lowinger says. “With our investment model, it takes a champion among our group (of investors) to make some of the arguments about why we should consider investing in certain companies,” she says.

This week’s announcement brings SLoFIG’s investments to five since its formation in 2011, for a total of about $900,000. Last fall, some of the 20 members in the group pooled $435,000 and awarded it to Erie St. Clair Restaurant LLC, the group that owns the Italian fast-casual Sopraffina Market Caffe and Cicchetti, a small-plates Venetian restaurant in Streeterville.

The Sugar Beet Co-op is among a handful of anticipated member-based local food outlets in the works around Chicago. Others are expected to open in Rogers Park, Elgin and Lombard. Up-and-running co-ops include the Dill Pickle Co-op in Logan Square and South Suburban Food Co-op in Park Forest.

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Spec Building Rises Again in Chicago

Originally published in Michigan Avenue Magazine
Spring 2014

content_Spec-Building-2A home by Environs Development at 2648 North Wayne Avenue.

Luxury homes built on spec in Chicago’s toniest neighborhoods are back with a vengeance. Developers who were reluctant to take on the risk of constructing deluxe dwellings without bona fide buyers for properties in Lincoln Park, River North, Lakeview, Bucktown, and elsewhere in 2008 and beyond are now building on spec again, at a faster clip than they can recall in recent memory. Demand is so hot for some of these homes that many aren’t even completed before the ink dries on buyers’ contracts.

Case in point: Ken Brinkman, president of Environs Development (3060 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-665-8170), reports that two sumptuously appointed Lincoln Park homes on the same block that he began constructing on spec last fall—a majestic 8,600-square-foot home at 1874 North Orchard Street with seven bedrooms and six bathrooms, and a 7,200-square-foot neighbor at 1870 North Orchard Street—sold before the roofs went up. He sealed the deals at hefty price tags of $5.975 million and $4.975 million, respectively.

Brinkman estimates about 80 percent of his firm’s projects in the last year or two began on spec and ended up pre-selling early in construction, which turned them into custom homes by the time buyers were ready to move in. Only about 20 percent of Environs’ completed homes are fully built on spec till completion, and many of those have gone under contract within 60 days, he adds.

Developers like Brinkman say buyers sitting on the sidelines have been beating a path back to the market for the last year or more. “What feels different now compared to even a year ago is that the potential clients we’re talking to are much more confident about their financial situation and more comfortable about the economy,” he observes.

Custom millwork in a Lincoln Park spec home from LG Development.

A lack of inventory is one reason high-end spec homes aren’t languishing. Some reluctance among many potential buyers to commit to the drawn-out process of custom-building homes is fueling the feeding frenzy for spec homes, too. “Custom projects have a terrible reputation for being time-consuming, and most people don’t want to deal with the details of meeting with architects and builders and making so many decisions,” asserts Brian Goldberg, a partner at LG Development Group (2234 W. North Ave., 773-278-6983). “It’s not that risky for us to build high-end properties on spec because only about 10 percent of the population buying homes [at those price points] are willing to build custom homes.”

LG tore down a four-unit apartment building at 2145 North Dayton Street last summer and is at the drywall stage of an 8,000-square-foot single family on that lot with six bedrooms, five bathrooms, two powder rooms, and high-end finishes throughout. Asking price: $4.695 million. Another LG property going up on spec is at 1720 North Mohawk Street. The single-family, 6,000-square-foot home will have five bedrooms, four baths, two powder rooms, and a price tag of $4.2 million.

Deluxe single-family homes aren’t the only spec developments enjoying robust activity in Chicago right now. Ranquist Development Group has seen spec building of luxury condos and row homes with well-appointed architecture gaining significant momentum since mid-to-late 2012, primarily in Bucktown, River North, and Logan Square, according to Karen Ranquist, who markets many of these properties through Koenig & Strey, where she is a real estate broker (1800 N. Clybourn Ave., 312-475-4542).

In collaboration with Seattle-based architectural firm Miller Hull Partnership, Ranquist last year gutted and redesigned a six unit luxury condo building in River North at 747 North Clark Street that recently sold out. The boutique building features full-floor units ranging from $1.11 million to $1.3 million with elevators that open directly into the homes, says Ranquist, who is married to Bob Ranquist, the development firm’s president.

“As a smaller developer, this is the busiest we’ve ever been in the 15 years of projects we’ve developed in the city,” says Ranquist. One of Ranquist’s largest development projects to date—47 row homes—is poised to break ground this spring in River North at the corner of Oak Street and Cleveland Avenue. Pre-marketing for this deluxe project, named Basecamp, began in earnest in January and delivery is expected next fall. Some cool features include concrete floors with radiant heat and ultramodern Italian cabinetry by Archisesto. Pricing starts at $549,000.

Developers agree there’s robust activity now to satisfy hearty market demand. But they’re keeping their fingers crossed that this level of interest continues. “If we start building something now, it will take about 18 months to deliver,” says Goldberg. “I really hope this strong market lasts.”

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Cool window displays — and eco-friendly, too

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
February 13, 2014

Linsey Burritt, left, and Crystal Hodges

Shop owners often buy all sorts of stuff to create eye-catching window displays, only to toss it all out for the next season’s promotion. Most of the material that designers Crystal Hodges and Linsey Burritt employ for their retail clients never ends up in the trash or recycling bin. And most of the pieces were used to begin with anyway.

Take an installation that Mses. Hodges and Burritt, co-owners of Indo, made for the Gold Coast location of TeaGschwendner, a German specialty tea chain. Dozens of ill-fitting, plastic cup lids that couldn’t be returned to a supplier were strung imaginatively to look like steam droplets billowing from a suspended red teapot in the window.

“What initially drew me to Indo was their aesthetic, but when I learned about their environmental ethics, that was a really awesome bonus,” says Krista Kane, TeaGschwendner’s district manager.

Other clients include Delta Faucet and Brizo in the Merchandise Mart, Hotel Lincoln, Optimo Hats, 88 Brand Partners, Nordstrom, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Art Institute of Chicago.

“At first, it was about not being wasteful, because visual merchandising in store window displays uses so much paper and other things,” Ms. Hodges says. “But we were also being really resourceful on tight budgets, finding used things on Craigslist and eBay and borrowing things.”


The designers, both 30, met at Columbia College Chicago. Both graduated in 2006, Ms. Burritt with a degree in graphic design and Ms. Hodges with a degree in interior architecture.

After college, Ms. Burritt worked as a freelance web designer and new product designer in Chicago. Ms. Hodges went on to earn a master’s degree in strategic leadership toward sustainability from Sweden’s Blekinge Institute of Technology and worked at RGLA, a retail design firm in Schiller Park. On the side, the two began collaborating on window displays for Niche Footwear, an edgy boutique in Wicker Park.

By 2010, there was enough demand (and income) for them to quit their day jobs and concentrate on Indo, which they named for the letters within the w’s of the word window. Mses. Hodges and Burritt say they completed 31 projects in 2013, almost twice as many as the year before. Revenue rose 79 percent from 2012, after a 33 percent increase from 2011, they say, though they decline to provide specific figures. The Near West Side firm has no full-time staff but hires interns and temporary help to install some displays.

They also have branched out to do interior projects. For a fundraising gala in October for the Art Institute’s photography department, they bought more than 27,000 used slides on eBay to evoke photography’s pre-digital days. They then built mini-pyramids out of the slides and mounted them atop photography light boxes as centerpieces running down the middle of long dinner tables.

“They used all this thrown-out stuff, but they made it really beautiful and elegant and it conveyed who we are,” says Elizabeth Siegel, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute.

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