Jessica Holmes recently sat in the back of a third-floor conference room as a handful of Englewood residents listened to a loan officer talk about what they should know before buying a home.
The workshop was designed to promote healthy finances, but Holmes was there to promote other healthy alternatives.
Holmes often pops in at meetings in Englewood sporting a lime-green chef’s coat and carrying bags filled with food, a portable stovetop, cooking pots and utensils.
She engages in the conversation occasionally, but mostly, she is there to give a cost-effective cooking demonstration on how a fusion of African-American soul food and Puerto Rican cuisine can produce more wholesome meals.
The 32-year-old, along with her sisters Lenora Carroll and Cecile De Mello, runs SoulBoricua, a catering company that services small not-for-profit groups. The goal is simple: replace the usual pizza and donuts often brought to meetings with healthier options that people can feel comfortable making at home.
“We started really catering to not-for-profit organizations and kept it at a really low cost because we knew they didn’t have a big budget,” Holmes said. “We wanted people, even in these little meetings, to eat healthy.”
SoulBoricua’s catering and cooking demonstrations are a reflection of the experience Holmes and her sisters had growing up with her African-American father and Puerto Rican mother in Woodlawn. The name SoulBoricua is a combination of the words “Soul Food” and “Boricua” which is a self-identifying term used by Puerto Ricans.
“We grew up on this cuisine that kind of fused those cultures together and it was amazing,” said Holmes, a culinary chef.
“My sister, [De Mello], kind of pushed me into doing more. She realized in her not-for-profit worked there was a health-gap in the meals at their meetings.”
De Mello, who has worked for many community groups in Englewood, said there was a need for healthy eating during group meetings.
“Food is so important to bring people together and in my experience, when the food being served is healthy, the conversation is more dynamic and engaging,” De Mello said.
Given the time consuming nature of the business, De Mello and Holmes –– both mothers –– had to find a way to minimize the work it took to make sofrito, a concentrated blend of vegetables, herbs and spices used for flavoring many Puerto Rican meals.
So they started manufacturing their own version of the sauce and named it “Soulfrito.” For the last three years, Soulfrito has been sold at three Whole Foods Market in Englewood, Hyde Park and Deerfield. Soulfrito will be on the shelves of Whole Foods’ Evergreen Park location when it opens.
“We will always be rooted in Englewood because it is where we got our start,” Holmes said. “We found the business as a social enterprise to do what was right for the community. That is the basis of our business, we don’t make a lot of money off of our product and that is not what we are trying to do.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.