Food business program that’s helped South Side staples is looking to train more restaurateurs

FoodLab Chicago, a entrepreneurship program from the Greater Chatham Initiative, counts iconic spots such Haire’s Gulf Shrimp among its alums. The program is opening up again.

SHARE Food business program that’s helped South Side staples is looking to train more restaurateurs
Aisha Murff, owner of Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, makes fried shrimp in the restaurant at 7448 S. Vincennes Ave. in Chatham on the South Side, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.

Aisha Murff, owner of Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, makes fried shrimp in the restaurant at 7448 S. Vincennes Ave. in Chatham on the South Side, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When Aisha Murff suddenly found herself at the helm of a well-known South Side shrimp shack, she hadn’t run a restaurant but knew she’d better learn.

Murff, the Los Angeles-born daughter of an actress, became the owner of Haire’s Gulf Shrimp when her husband, Finnie Haire, died in 2021, leaving her a Greater Grand Crossing institution that was decades old and built on a recipe carried over in the Great Migration.

“It is literally Black history keeping it going,” Murff said.

She signed up for business courses, and the best among them for her new role was the FoodLab Chicago program from the Greater Chatham Initiative economic development group.

The FoodLab program aims to grow South Side food businesses by teaching aspects of the industry that owners who got into it more for the food might overlook.

Tamieka Hardy, program manager at the Greater Chatham Initiative’s FoodLab Chicago program, stands in Chatham on the South Side, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Tamieka Hardy, program manager at the Greater Chatham Initiative’s FoodLab Chicago program, stands in Chatham on the South Side, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The program, which launched in 2020 and has trained 40 restaurant operators, is accepting applications for its next training series. Up to 25 people will be accepted for the training, which begins in March.

Applications to will be accepted until Feb. 23 and can be found at the program’s website, foodlabchicago.com. An owner of any kind of food business that has been in operation for at least 18 months may apply. Special preference is given to those from Auburn Gresham, Avalon Park, Bronzeville, Chatham, Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore.

The curriculum of the six-month program includes such things as correctly pricing food, website development and building the right infrastructure to offer delivery services.

“It’s about working with food services businesses on the South Side to provide coaching and educational resources, for restaurants to let them better know their numbers and make informed decisions,” said Tamieka Hardy, who runs the program. “If every plate is profitable, then the restaurant itself will be profitable.”

Imani Muhammad, the owner of Imani’s Original Bean Pies & Fine Foods, was part of the program’s first group in 2020. She went into business about 15 years earlier, starting at the behest of friends and family who tried her pies at a school fundraiser.

There’s more to success than a good product.

Imani Muhammad, owner of Imani’s Original Beans Pies & Fine Foods, holds a navy bean pie in the restaurant at 2423 E. 75th St. in Chatham on the South Side, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Imani Muhammad, owner of Imani’s Original Beans Pies & Fine Foods, holds a navy bean pie in the restaurant at 2423 E. 75th St. in Chatham on the South Side, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“It helped us to look at the numbers and go after grants, which can be very important for small-business owners because sometimes we can get caught up in the day to day of the business and neglect the numbers side,” Muhammad said.

She credits the program for helping her with marketing and pricing.

For Murff, the program helped her develop a website and begin doing online orders. She estimates business at Haire’s has increased by 15% since going through the program.

“Whether you’re starting a business or had a business for years, whatever it is you want to do in the food industry, join,” she said. “It’s very good coaching, training, whatever you want to enhance, it’ll be beneficial for you.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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