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Black business incubator says hello — and goodbye — to culinary artists

Washington Park’s Retreat at Currency Exchange welcomed two new culinary artists in residence this fall. But by the end of January, all three fledgling businesses will be moving on.

Felton Kizer, co-founder of Monday Coffee Co, at Retreat Currency Exchange in Washington Park.
Felton Kizer, co-founder of Monday Coffee Co., at Retreat Currency Exchange in Washington Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A coffeehouse, a craft cocktail business and a catering business. They’re all at Washington Park’s Retreat at Currency Exchange.

Retreat, created by artist Theaster Gates, is a Black and Brown business incubator. While it has featured coffee roasters Monday Coffee Co. since August, the incubator at 305 E. Garfield Blvd. opened its doors to two more culinary artists this fall.

In October, Tim Williams’ craft cocktail business, Pour Souls, joined the incubator. That same month, Chef Jazer Syed set up his Collective Ventures catering business in the kitchen.

“I’m committed to demonstrating that Black businesses can thrive when there are institutions that believe in them and investors who are willing to put in time and resources to support our communities,” said Theaster Gates, founder and executive director of Rebuild Foundation.

But by the end of January, all three businesses will be gone. Here’s what’s been happening — and what’s up next — for the culinary artists.

Monday Coffee Co.

With a goal to end the “whitewashing of the coffee industry,” Monday Coffee Co. kicked off its residency with DJs and boozy lattes. But co-founders Amanda Harth and Felton Kizer also made it a place for business advice.

The coffeehouse had a financial adviser giving out free advice for small businesses during a “Small Business Tuesday” event; a Tuesday tax discussion; and different featured chefs every Monday.

“Coming from marginalized communities and figuring out how can I get access to these resources in these spaces and now that we’ve been blessed to do that, it’s only natural that we are able to do the same for colleagues or people looking for an opportunity to connect or build something of their own in this space,” Harth said.

Harth and Kizer are looking to keep building connections, even as they leave. They’ll be heading to both familiar and new spaces.

Throughout the summer, Monday Coffee Co. spent Mondays “taking over” a Soho Studio at Soho House. But, Kizer said, the members-only social club has asked them to stay.

“They saw our passion, they saw the community we bring out,” Kizer said.

The coffee shop operates out of Soho House’s first-floor bar, 113 N. Green St., Monday through Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

And it’s expanding into Garfield Park.

Visitors to the Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., can catch the coffee brewers with their mobile coffee cart from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.

“That’s a totally different vibe and a different space, and I’m really excited to see what the community looks like there,” Kizer said.

Monday Coffee Co. will stay at Retreat through January.

Tim Williams, founder of Pour Souls (from left), with Amanda Harth and Felton Kizer, founders of Monday Coffee Co., at Retreat Currency Exchange, 305 E. Garfield Blvd. in Washington Park.
Tim Williams, founder of Pour Souls (from left), with Amanda Harth and Felton Kizer, founders of Monday Coffee Co., at Retreat Currency Exchange, 305 E. Garfield Blvd. in Washington Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Pour Souls

“A bar without a bar.” That’s how creative director Tim Williams described his craft cocktail business. He started it 10 years ago but struggled to keep it going — until four years ago.

“I just needed momentum,” Williams said.

Momentum kicked in when Williams was asked to do an event. Soon, other opportunities began to pop up.

“We did nine events in four days,” he said.

But just as quickly as the momentum hit, it dissipated in the pandemic.

Williams knew the business would die if he didn’t come up with another way to keep craft cocktails necessary when people couldn’t host events.

“We worked more on becoming a brand, a household name that was associated with cocktails,” he said. “We created at-home cocktail starters. That sustained us and kept us on people’s minds.”

Then, they branched out even more, hosting virtual cocktail lessons and consulting with restaurants.

Now Williams and his team, helped by his director of operations Danielle Lewis, are delving into curating menus, drinks and business opportunities.

Williams wants Pour Souls to become the go-to cocktail catering business in Chicago.

“Creating community has become increasingly important to me,” he said. “I think Retreat gives us an opportunity to create community, farther south than we’ve ever been. My intention is, when people think about cocktails at any sort of scale in Chicago, I want them to think about Pour Souls.”

Pour Souls is in residency through Jan. 6.

Collective Venture

The third business at Retreat, Collective Venture, is led by Chef Jazer Syed.

Syed was born in the Philippines but his parents moved him and his brother to Detroit when Syed was 5.

“We’ve always been introduced to different cultures from Indian to Filipino to American,” Syed said. “We traveled a lot — I was addicted to the idea of traveling. And I found out food is the most honest representation of a culture.”

Now, Syed melds his Indian and Filipino heritage with his travel experiences to create stunning, delicious meals.

Syed has worked at places like Café Marie-Jeanne and Fat Rice, but he loves the community at the incubator.

“The soul of the place, the idea of the place, is camaraderie,” he said.

The incubator is a learning experience for Syed. He’s not sure what Collective Venture will look like in the future — a catering business, a restaurant or something else — but he knows it will be something healthy and positive for the community.

“We can all cook, we can all do it,” Syed said. “If I can teach someone to cook, that’s even better. If I can inspire someone to cook or want to learn more about food or the culture, it’d be great. It’s about experiences, it’s influence, it’s meeting great people.”

Collective Venture’s residency will last through January.

Baredu Ahmed, programmer at Retreat, said the incubator looks forward to welcoming new residents in 2022, although no announcements on new residencies have been made.

“Our first cohort of culinary artists in residence with us has enabled these local Black and Brown businesses to develop their craft and grow their capacity so they can move onto bigger spaces or spaces of their own,” said Ahmed.

Chef Jazer Syed prepares an order of his breakfast tacos, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Retreat Currency Exchange in Washington Park.
Chef Jazer Syed prepares an order of his breakfast tacos at Retreat Currency Exchange in Washington Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times