By Siri Bulusu
For Rachel Bernier-Green, business and baking were always inextricably linked.
As a child, the Chicago native learned math by following baking instructions from her mother and was selling brownies and homemade potpourri to classmates. A strong aptitude for math led Green to business school and a successful accounting job.
“Even before I was baking, I was a kid-preneur,” Bernier-Green said. “I’ve been scheming for a while. Finding out how math could assist in my ventures helped me fit it all together.”
After five years of working as a public accountant in Chicago, Bernier-Green decided to transition her experience with numbers and love of baking, into her own enterprise — Laine’s Bake Shop.
“I was a cook that went to business school, and now I’m an accountant that is a chef,” Bernier-Green said.
With the math and baking skills down, what Bernier-Green needed was guidance with setting up her own bakery. In July of 2013, Bernier-Green sold her cookies at an event hosted by the Bronzeville Retail Initiative, an organization focused on returning retail business to Chicago’s South Side. Gina Caruso, assistant commissioner of the City of Chicago’s new Small Business Center, noticed Green and her cookies and told her about a new Whole Foods opening in Englewood. Caruso connected Green with the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation.
“Our aim is to change the conversation about the South Side of Chicago,” said Jim Harbin, program director at the GECDC. “The stories coming out of here are about a tiny percentage of the population here. People really need to start focusing on the potential that the residents of Englewood see in themselves.”
In a 2013 press release, Whole Foods announced it would open a new store in Englewood that would bring 100 jobs to the area and provide healthy food options to the community. In October of 2014, the GECDC began a series of three workshops in collaboration with Whole Foods to connect the store with local vendors to support the company’s local sourcing initiative.
“When we open a store, we plant deep roots in the community we serve; creating a space that is more than a daily grocery, but a community gathering place where everyone can share their love of food,” said Alison Phelps, a spokesperson for Whole Foods in an e-mail.
Bernier-Green attended all three of the GECDC workshops, with the intention of pitching to Whole Foods, gaining skills ranging from packaging to kitchen protocol.
“She did everything we asked her to do plus more,” said Jennipher Adkins, marketing director of the GECDC. “If we weren’t on her, she was on us. She wanted to exploit the opportunity and use it to the fullest extent.”
According to Harbin, about 260 unique businesses attended the three-day workshop and of those, 49 pitched to Whole Foods. Laine’s Bake Shop was one of 15 Englewood businesses selected to sell in Whole Foods stores, and not just in Englewood.
Phelps said that while Whole Foods buyers were impressed by the taste and quality of Laine’s Bake Shop cookies, it was Bernier-Green’s “community supportive business approach” that developed the link.
Bernier-Green said that although for now Laine’s Bake Shop is just her and her husband, part of her desire to create a small business on the South Side was to impact the community by bringing jobs that can become career paths.
“The people we want to hire are from areas that are chronically unemployed due to homelessness or incarceration,” Bernier-Green said. “They struggle to find a decent job that gives them the opportunity to turn it around.”
When the time comes to expand Laine’s Bake Shop, Bernier-Green plans to hire employees straight out of job training programs held by South Side organizations such as Growing Home, an organic farm in Englewood, and Young Moms Inc., a group that supports young mothers and their children.
“We’ll be based in the South Side for the foreseeable future so we’ll be hiring workers who have the closest proximity,” Bernier-Green said.
Adkins of GECDC went on to say that the success of the Englewood store will rest on the Englewood community itself.
“All eyes are on the community and it’s their responsibility to make this work,” said Adkins. “When a premium food company comes to one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the city, it made everyone shake their head.”
Phelps said that by investing in Englewood, the company has decided to “challenge” the perception that quality food is exclusive to certain citizens.
Jim Harbin, of GECDC, said that Whole Foods made a smart move by tapping into the existing market on the South Side of Chicago.
“When retailers ask you for your zip code, they document where people come from,” Harbin said. “They are using data to make decisions to build stores in Englewood. They know this is a good business decision.”
When Laine’s Bake Shop products were first offered at Whole Foods, Bernier-Green estimates that sales were about $1000 per month, or 15 to 20 pounds of cookies, for three locations, in Lincoln Park, the South Loop and West Loop.
“We started in three stores because we were only baking part-time then,” Bernier-Green said. “It was the quickest, easiest and most cost-effective way to get our foot in the door. That move was crucial.”
At the outset Bernier-Green was almost completely self-financed, but she had invaluable support from Englewood Blue, an accelerator program operated through the GECDC.
“We offer a place for people to conduct business before they have a business,” Harbin said. “We have counselors to help if someone is worried about a business plan or a social media campaign.”
Members of Englewood Blue pay a monthly fee of $25 to use its Englewood office space, which has Internet-connected computers and conference rooms.
“The money that is offset by Englewood Blue is then recycled back into the small business,” Harbin said. “Those savings should be able to accelerate the growth of your business.”
In addition to support from Englewood Blue and the GECDC, Bernier-Green procured a $5000 crowd-funded loan from Kiva Zip.
Green said Laine’s Bake Shop has been successful due to Whole Foods’ commitment to helping small businesses grow at a “healthy pace.”
“We were able to enter wholesale so early in our endeavor because of the support of Whole Foods and GECDC, an opportunity that would have been several years away.” Bernier-Green said.
Now two years into the business, Bernier-Green said her 2016 goal is to bring in $500,000 in revenue, a 600 percent increase from 2015. Laine’s Bake Shop now has products in eight Chicago-area Whole Foods locations and Bernier-Green has doubled the number of flavors offered – including “Honey Nut Peanut Butter Cookies” and “Bourbon Carmel Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies.”
“This business is meant to be a success for a lot of people,” Bernier-Green said. “We are trying to create generational wealth so our kids have better options. This is meant to be transformational not just for the community, but for my family.”
Bernier-Green said Laine’s Bake Shop still faces many challenges, scaling to accommodate an increase in orders being one of them. She and her husband are currently working around the clock to keep up with meeting and order requests.
“Right now this has seeped into all aspects of our lives,” Bernier-Green said. “You have to do the best you can and pivot when things change.”
“It’s not easy when we run into obstacles but at the end of the day what makes it all worth it is knowing we’ll have a real impact on our community,” Bernier-Green said. “We can significantly change their lives and financial well being.”
Photo at top: Rachel Bernier-Green prepares cookies at a shared kitchen space in Chicago’s West Loop. (Siri Bulusu/ MEDILL)