Graduates of the Foodservice Training Program are spread all across the Chicago area utilizing their skills to not only advance their careers, but to also serve their communities. Inspiration Corporation wishes to highlight program alum accomplishments and share their stories. Tune in each month to see who is in the spotlight and learn about what inspires them.
Nicole completed the Foodservice Training Program in January 2018. Upon completing her training, she pursued her dream of being self-employed and establishing her own business. Through additional personal investment, networking, and consistency, Niki’s Urban Eats (Nicole’s food truck) became a reality. However, like many, her business endeavors came to a halt due to COVID-19, however, she has remained persistent and hopeful. Here is her story.
If Nicole sounds familiar you might remember her from this previous blog post
Interview with Nicole (1/21/2021)
When did you first hear about Inspiration Kitchens, and what encouraged you to apply?
Back in 2017 I found myself in a low place. I had just left a corporate job that no longer was giving me the sense of fulfillment I was wanting for myself. There was this period of time that I was just looking for work that could provide the fulfillment I was looking for. Before Inspiration Kitchens came on my radar, I was actually offered a role that was…okay. The job paid a low wage and demanded a lot of hard work. In my mind I said, well if I can work hard for someone else at low pay, I might as well work hard for myself and pay me what I believe I am worth. I declined the offer and began to try and figure out a succession plan that could lead to me establishing my own business in the near future.
One day, while driving, I heard a radio advertisement about Inspiration Kitchens and their free training program. It sounded so promising. After the ad ended, I immediately pulled over to call the program and schedule a day to attend an information session. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never worked in a commercial kitchen before, nor did I have any professional cooking experience. But from the moment I stepped into Inspiration Kitchens and spoke with the staff, it was clear to me that I was where I needed to be to learn and grow. The program instructors were nice and passionate about food service, and a bonus for me was seeing the women on staff who were successful in their own right as chefs. I was inspired. I was so excited to learn from them and apply their teachings toward my own food service aspirations.
What are the top skills and advice you gained from your training that you currently are utilizing at home or in your current job?
Upon beginning the program, I committed myself to erasing everything from my mind on what I thought I knew about cooking. I came to training with a completely open mind to learn what the chefs wanted to equip me with. Of all of the techniques I learned, mise en place is still the most foundational concept that I apply to my personal and professional life daily. Emphasizing putting everything in its place before moving forward has helped me grow and has given my confidence grow.
What is your favorite dish or are your favorite dishes to cook?
My favorite dish to cook, that I learned how to make at Inspiration Kitchens, is gumbo. The process of making gumbo draws me in. The nutty smell of the rue that takes time to develop is so worth it. The layering of flavors is out of this world. You can taste every level of the dish. Thank you, Chef Sam (Inspiration Kitchens’ Head Chef), for guiding me through the gumbo recipe so I can learn how to make it.
For my business, my signature dishes are actually, salads. I am known as the salad lady among my customers and partners. The dressing I make from scratch makes the salad. I’m hoping to be able to bottle and sell my dressings.
After completing your training, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, what did you do to establish your business?
It was a long road getting to a place where the business was running at a consistent pace. After completing my training, I found that I needed to find my niche in the industry and figure out who my customer base was going to be. So, before I invested my money, I made the decision to not cook as much for about 7 months to build a customer base, establish my financial plan, and then focused on executing my plan and processes. To get my business started, I made meals and sold them at barber shops and beauty salons. On my first day selling meals I sold out in 30 minutes and made $500. I also catered small events as well. That financial return from my endeavors really gave me confidence to keep pushing and follow my plan as best I can. As sales continued to improve, I made the decision to participate in a free business development program offered by Hammond Business Development Corporation in the state of Indiana. The program provided me with addition insight on how to build and execute a business plan. I wanted to make sure I did everything right. I experienced so much growth through 2018 and 2019 with my business, and I was feeling so encouraged. My customer base was expanding and I found myself catering corporate lunches, graduations, and other events.
Around July of 2019, the opportunity I was waiting for came across my plate. The food truck of my dreams had a big for sale sign on it and I felt that my window to purchase a truck had arrived. So, I bought the food truck, but it was a “fixer upper.” It took a couple of months and lots of time and money to get the truck ready for service. Fortunately, everything got fixed and I immediately used the full capacity of the truck to produce and sell food. My customer base and sales continued to increase and remain consistent…well, that is until the pandemic came around.
How has COVID-19 impacted you?
The momentum that I was making for my business came to a screeching halt. I began to feel like a failure and second guessed if I had made the right decision. When everything in our world froze, I felt low. I had worked so hard to build amazing relationships with customers who were consistent, but once COVID-19 came around, the orders stopped coming in. I immediately began to look for another job to get me by. The food industry was hurting. I was hurting.
Can you explain where you are currently employed and what you do?
I recently took a position with the State of Indiana COVID Hotline as a Vaccination Call Representative. I inform people of where they can get a COVID vaccine, and if they feel encouraged about the vaccination, I can then schedule them for an appointment. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help people. In my spare time I am still working towards getting my dressing bottled and sold and am collaborating with the SBA, the Small Business Association. They reached out to me and wanted to work with me since I have a history of catering events for the SBA. They are doing everything they can to help me get my dressing on the shelves at stores. I really appreciate them for believing in me and my product.
How has Inspiration Kitchens continued to be a resource to you as a program alumnus?
Inspiration Kitchens has always had its doors open to me. Chef Sam was always available to provide insight for my business. The employment specialist and case managers were always available to answer questions and direct me to resources. As the pandemic raged on, the Inspiration Kitchens team provided resources for food that my family needed. The Inspiration Kitchens team has also always kept me informed of job opportunities and other resources that I can take advantage of, if needed. I encourage all Inspiration Kitchens program alum and future students to utilize the program to the fullest. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The staff has no idea how much of a positive impact they have had on my life.
Any final words you’d like to share?
To anyone who will be a part of the Foodservice Training program, I encourage you to go into the training with an open mind. The skills you gain can be applied in so many ways, and it is important to learn from an expert who desires to support and guide you toward your goals.
Some plans do not always have a straight path to success. At times when pursuing your goals, be prepared to experience some obstacles. But obstacles are not a bad thing. As long as you learn from them and keep pushing forward, you will find yourself on the other side happy and doing what you love. Life is not always a straight path.
I refuse to blame COVID-19 for any derailment, because when it is over, I am going to get right back to building my business and serving people.
Nicole is working on getting her business back in prime form. She is catering events as they come and doing what she loves with passion.