Chicago’s Brown Sugar Bakery receives surprise $10,000 small-business grant during Good Morning America appearance

Adam Lukach, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

When Brown Sugar Bakery founder and owner Stephanie Hart appeared on Good Morning America Friday morning, she didn’t think she’d be getting $10,000. She was wrong.

Much to her surprise, Hart received a $10,000 grant on the morning show. The award comes from Verizon and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, part of a larger $10 million commitment from the company to support small businesses.

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a nonprofit organization, works to develop and support businesses, utilities and other public spaces in historically underserved communities. Even before receiving the $10,000 grant from LISC, Hart had been working with the organization for two years to formulate a business plan that would allow her to buy the 75th Street building in which her business resides. The bakery makes its home in Chatham, a neighborhood that has been neglected historically.

“My goal was to own the building, but I wasn’t in a position to do that when I went to ask first,” Hart said. “It was not like going to a bank and just getting turned down. … They really met with me. They came to the business and looked at it, then they sat down with me and said ‘Look, here are the things that you’re going to need to do.’ I really appreciated it.”

Hart said LISC advisors helped her streamline operations, including her accounting and her website. In fact, she thought that experience is what she would be discussing during her GMA appearance.

As for the grant money, Hart said she already has it earmarked to help facilitate her shipping operations, which will also allow her to bring back some employees furloughed during the pandemic.

After the pandemic shifted her business, Hart became determined to find a suitable method for shipping her whole cakes nationwide. Eventually she consulted the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation out of the University of Chicago, and the center helped her devise packaging and operations that could transport her cakes in good shape.

As she finalizes the digital operations, the grant will help get that plan across the finish line.

Like virtually all hospitality operations, Brown Sugar Bakery took some losses during the pandemic. Hart’s location at Navy Pier was shut down along with the rest of the pier in 2020, and without that revenue stream, Hart was forced to shut down her Brown Sugar location on the West Side as well. Money from the Navy Pier location had helped Hart subsidize the West Side space. That location, Hart said, had primarily been an effort to support the area with business and jobs.

“But when I tell you I’m not complaining, I mean it. Every payroll I can eke out right now, I’m extremely grateful,” Hart said.

At the original Brown Sugar location on 75th Street, Hart has been reopened since Mother’s Day. And within the next 10 days, she said she plans to close on the sale of the building where her business has been since 2004.

Hart said she is grateful for her customers who have supported her business throughout the years, but also helped her stay afloat during the trying times of the pandemic.

“I feel so blessed. I’ll be honest and tell you that, pre-COVID, if there was a line out the door, I would have had a fit, because that would mean we weren’t doing our jobs fast or efficient enough. But when I see the line now, there’s days when I drive up and I just cry,” Hart said. “Someone just called me today and said ‘We drove past your business last week, and it was cold outside. That cake must be good because people were standing in line!’ That type of support — where people don’t pass you up just because they gotta stand in line — I don’t know how you repay that.”

adlukach@chicagotribune.com