Home-grown funding helps launch Sugar Beet

Sustainable food group in Oak Park connects co-op with local investors

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

It's still about a year before Oak Park's new food cooperative, Sugar Beet, will open its doors to the public. But the fledgling enterprise might have taken much longer to get off the ground — and in the ground floor — had it not been for the help of an Oak Park nonprofit committed to responsibly grown food, plus a handful of conscientious local investors.

Last month, Sugar Beet signed a 10-year lease for its new home at 820 Madison St., but the deal was largely contingent on a cash infusion of $102,000 by six investors from Oak Park and River Forest associated with the Sustainable Local Food Investment Group, also known as SLoFIG. 

This group of angel investors, with about 25 members around Chicago, is committed to investments that aim to help "rebuild and re-localize the regional food chain."

"They really believed in us and went out on a limb," Sugar Beet co-founder Cheryl Munoz said.

SLoFIG investor and co-op member Bill Gee of River Forest, who owns a bakery in Chicago, gave few details about the investment but said the return is below the standard market interest rate.

"We're not looking to get super rich," he said. "We're trying to do something that is financially viable."

"Nobody in the [SLoFIG] group is an investment banker," he said, noting that SLoFIG members were first put in touch with Sugar Beet in 2013 at the Good Food Festival, a multi-day event that promotes local, sustainable food production. Held by the Oak Park-based non-profit FamilyFarmed.org, the festival commits one day to financing for new businesses, giving entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their business ideas to investors.

The so-called Good Food Financing and Innovation Conference made Sugar Beet one of its six presenters because of its commitment to selling food that is grown close to home, said FamilyFarmed.org president Jim Slama.

"For us the food co-op is a no-brainer," Slama said. "I was an early member of the co-op and, of course, we're supporters. We're excited to see it succeed."

He said SLoFIG has been one of the primary angel investor groups for the financing portion of the food festival and noted that in the last couple of years alone, SLoFIG and other investment groups committed to sustainable food production and distribution have raised over $5 million for businesses at the conference.

"That's a sign that it's working," Slama said. "The money's really started to step forward in the last two years, so we're excited about that."

Munoz said the bridge loan that helped facilitate the lease with Interfaith Housing Development Corporation of Chicago, which owns the ground-level retail space Sugar Beet will occupy on Madison Street, also has created buzz in helping attract new co-op members.

"We are almost at 300 members," Munoz said. "Since the lease was signed, membership has been booming."

She said the co-op organizers will hold an open house for new members to tour the space on May 4. 

The group has not made an official announcement about the event, she said, but details will be posted on the Sugar Beet website at https://sugarbeetcoop.squarespace.com.

Contact: tim@oakpark.com

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