Inspiration Corporation was founded in 1989 by Lisa Nigro, a police officer who was searching for a personal response to the people she encountered on her beat. Lisa borrowed her nephew’s red wagon, filled it with coffee and sandwiches, and pulled it around the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, aiming to offer a little dignity and respect to the people she encountered. Over time, the wagon grew into a van, bus, and eventually a full-service cafe, where men and women experiencing homelessness could sit down, order off a menu and be served. In the years that followed, Inspiration Cafe expanded its services beyond simply meals, to include case management, supportive services, housing, and employment training.
In the late 1990s Inspiration Corporation began leveraging the commercial kitchen at Inspiration Cafe to provide training in the culinary industry to guests that struggled to find stable employment due to a lack of marketable skills and/or work history. The agency relied on the support of Chicago chefs and restaurant owners to develop curriculum.
The organization piloted its Foodservice Training program in 2000 and 2001, and the program began running year round in 2002. Students got hands-on experience working at Inspiration Cafe twice a week when the dining room opened for lunch to the paying public. In 2005, Inspiration Corporation opened its first Inspiration Kitchens social enterprise restaurant in Uptown to serve the public and provide work experience to students. Also in 2005, Inspiration Corporation merged with The Employment Project, a workforce development organization created in 1994 by a group of homeless service professionals led by Luke Weisberg. In 2011, Inspiration Kitchens opened a second social enterprise restaurant in East Garfield Park. Inspiration Corporation added its Housing Services program in 2001; in 2012, the organization opened its first project-based housing, an eight unit building for families in Washington Park.