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Small Business Week Chicago: 5 Businesses that Did It Right

Small Business Week

We’re pumped to wrap up one of our favorite months (April has Earth Day, c’mon) by celebrating National Small Business Week. Today we want to shout it out to those hustling businesses, many of which started small… and made it big. Here’s a closer look at some of our friends and idols in Chicago that have absolutely killed it, from way back in 1963 to today.

Think we missed one? Nominate your favorite shop to win $1,000 cash… oh, and if they win, you get $100 just for nominating them. Yea, that’s just how we roll on National Small Business Week.

Intelligentsia Coffee: In today’s world of cold brews and pour-overs, it’s almost hard to remember a time when fresh roasted coffee wasn’t a thing. But way back in 1995 (well, maybe not way back, but believe it or not some of us here weren’t even born yet!), that was the case. So, Doug Zell and Emily Mange decided to do something about it. Doug and Emily saw coffee differently, they saw it as an art and a science all its own. The pair moved from San Francisco to Chicago to open their own coffee shop with beans roasted in-store…that’s right, fresh roasted beans on site. What started out as a hustling small business is now a growing brand portfolio of coffee bars, roasters and training labs. Yes, labs. By collecting data on something as simple and forgotten as a cup of Joe, Doug, Emily and their team have become coffee masters, perfecting and crafting something beautiful out of what was once mundane. Ahh, data…much nerd love here.

Portillo’s: Throw it back to the early ‘60s and believe it or not, Portillo’s was a small, hole-in-the-wall hot dog stand. When owner and founder Dick Portillo first opened the stand, he even had to run a garden hose from a nearby building to get the water he needed. That’s some serious commitment. But what really turned the tide for Portillo’s from a one-stand shop to the world-renowned Chicago Dog icon it is today, was a bit of innovation. Enter: the drive-thru window. Dick Portillo took a chance on doing things a little differently, and it helped him build brand differentiation. Two years later, Dick was featured in Forbes magazine. Fast forward 40+ years, Portillo’s has locations (all with running water, of course, and known for speedy service) all over Chicago and nationwide. Hot dang!

Revolution Brewing Tap Room: Revolution began like most craft breweries – as a small business and a labor of love – but it’s the name that tips you off that these guys and gals are a bit different. They’re revolutionary. Not just in a general sense that ‘craft beer is a revolution,’ but more so in their overall approach to business. Sure, they have insanely creative seasonal brews, like their Galaxy-Hero IPA or their collaborative brews with folks like Anchor Brewing Company. But even more mind-blowing is their recent announcement of craft beer delivery via Caviar – growler fills, 6-packs and even their full brewpub menu delivered straight to your doorstep! No wonder Revolution is Illinois’ largest independently owned brewery…they’re always thinking out of the box and one step ahead.

Gino’s East: It doesn’t get more iconic than Chicago deep-dish pizza. Founded by two taxi drivers and their friend in the mid ‘60s, Gino’s built its brand on one incredible main ingredient – its pizza dough – and its edgy personality. Success was quite literally writing on the wall, as Gino’s became known for not only awesome pizza, but also for allowing customers to graffiti its walls. From Chicagoans to international celebrities, everyone finds a bit of a thrill in leaving their mark, their legacy for all to see. This edgy twist, this disruptive personality helped put Gino’s on the map. Now you can visit the chain across Chicagoland and in other U.S. cities.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company: Clearly Chicago is a foodie’s paradise, but once you’ve had your fill at all your favorites, I recommend catching a show at this incredible not-for-profit and passion project, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The Steppenwolf ensemble was founded by the renowned actor Gary Sinise along with two of his high school and college friends in the basement of a church. Why? Because they were determined to do what they love, and man do they do it well. With twelve Tony Awards to its name over the past five decades and 700 performances a year, Steppenwolf has established its place on the national stage (pun intended).

These are just five of my favorites, but there are dozens, even hundreds, more in Chi-town and elsewhere who deserve mad props (and your patronage and support) this National Small Business Week. So do them a solid, go see them! Or do them one better, and nominate them to win $1,000 to do something rad, crazy, innovative or out of the ordinary that could take their business from good to great. We’ll be picking winners out of a hat (well, actually through an official digital raffle tool…but you get the idea) on May 15th, so get your nominations in now! Winning business gets $1,000 cash and their nominator (aka you!) gets $100 just for being awesome.

Remember, it’s you, the loyal customers, who help these small businesses make it big. Do something great today.

References made to companies in this post are not meant to convey endorsement of Rubicon by those companies in any way.

Photo Credit: Portillo’s 

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