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Rotting food starts to smell like money for compost business

Jonathan Scheffel pedals down Western Avenue. He owns Healthy Soil compost pick-up service; he picks up organic refuse for a fee, then makes the compost available to his customers. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

In his dream, a fleet of bicyclists crisscrosses Chicago, hauling little trailers weighed down with food scraps collected from homes and businesses.

Jonathan Scheffel just took a baby step toward making that dream a reality. He hired five part-time cyclists.

Until now, in the year since he launched Healthy Soil Compost, Scheffel has peddled his business alone — and pedaled up to 600 miles a month.

The extra leg power will help transport the pungent cargo to its ultimate destination: Nature’s Little Recyclers, a worm farm in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Worms feast on the rotting organic matter and leave behind nutrient-rich compost — a commodity he makes available to his customers.

With his nascent bike fleet taking shape, Scheffel wants to expand and pitch his services to restaurants in the Loop and West Town.

“We’re hauling 7,000 pounds a month of compost,” said Scheffel, whose territory includes neighborhoods from Hyde Park to Logan Square. A storage locker near Grand and Western is a key hub between treks.

Customers fill a 5-gallon bucket with organic refuse. Scheffel, or one of his crew, will swing buy and collect compost once a month for $15. More frequent service is available for a higher fee. Scheffel’s employees receive a percentage of each pickup.

Ian Fecke-Stoudt, Jonathan Scheffel and Be Wilson review the day’s schedule for the Healthy Soil Compost pickup service. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times
Ian Fecke-Stoudt, Jonathan Scheffel and Be Wilson review the day’s schedule for the Healthy Soil Compost pickup service. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Scheffel admits it will be interesting to see whether his employees are still willing to haul compost by bike through the Chicago winter.

He doesn’t plan to get rich anytime soon, but he loves what he does.

He figured he might make $1,000 in his first year. His one-year anniversary passed on Friday, and Scheffel now expects that number to be closer to $50,000.

“I only pay myself a little bit to live,” said Scheffel, who is frugal, sharing a Bridgeport apartment with two roommates. His portion of the rent is $300. He doesn’t have a television.

“Almost everything I’m making goes straight back into the business,” he said.

“When I started I was on food stamps, and I could still be on food stamps,” Scheffel added. “It took me six or seven months to even pay myself. Maybe one day I’ll pay myself a little more, but growing a business, it’s like a baby and I need to take care of it.”

Scheffel has 200 residential and 10 commercial customers, including four restaurants, a radio station and two schools. And he just secured a small business loan to help him expand.

“I’m pretty fortunate to be doing something that fulfills my soul,” Scheffel said.

His eco-friendly and zero-emission business saves tons of garbage from ending up in a landfill, a fact that satisfies his customers as well.

The closest thing to a competitor he has is Liam Donnelly, a 19-year-old graduate of St. Ignatius College Prep who runs WasteNot Compost. Donnelly operates primarily on the North Side. They eventually may join forces, both have said.

Jonathan Scheffel says he started his Healthy Soil Compost pickup service as a hobby, thinking he might make $1,000 a year. But he reached $50,000 on his one-year anniversary. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times
Jonathan Scheffel says he started his Healthy Soil Compost pickup service as a hobby, thinking he might make $1,000 a year. But he reached $50,000 on his one-year anniversary. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Scheffel lived in Elgin until he was 6, when his family moved to Atlanta. He farmed a garden for a local restaurant before he started his business. He has made several attempts at college, completing nearly two years, but kept leaving to get work experience.

Scheffel has always followed his instincts, even if they seem unusual and don’t always work out. For instance, that time he decided to walk to Chicago from Georgia.

It was six years ago, he was living in Georgia, and his then-girlfriend had moved to Chicago.

“Instead of driving, I decided to sell my car and walk,” he said. “It was really just me trying to take an alternative route to get somewhere.”

The decision greatly worried his mother, Patricia McDonald, who nonetheless tried to remain supportive.

Between walking and the occasional rides from helpful strangers, Scheffel covered about 500 miles in two weeks, camping anywhere he could in a one-man tent.

“I got to Virginia and decided I was a little too tired, so I took a train the rest of the way,” Scheffel recalled.

“I met a lot of people who were really nice, and it was scary at times, and also just a really good time to be alone and learn a lot about myself,” he added.

“I kind of just jump into something and try to figure it out,” he said. “A lot of the times I fail. But this one is working out a little bit more.”

On a side note, Scheffel’s mother remains supportive. She’s visiting later this summer and plans to check out the business for herself — riding along as he does pickups on his route.

Jonathan Scheffel, owner of the Healthy Soil Compost pickup service, has hired five employees. He hopes they still want to ride around to pick up compost once Chicago’s winter weather arrives. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times
Jonathan Scheffel, owner of the Healthy Soil Compost pickup service, has hired five employees. He hopes they still want to ride around to pick up compost once Chicago’s winter weather arrives. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times