Strengthening Local Businesses
From Our Neighborhood News, Summer 2019.
For Northwestern University, being a good neighbor includes supporting local and diverse businesses in Evanston and Chicago.
"We all benefit when local businesses do well," says Jim Konrad, executive director of procurement and payment services. He adds that working with them can often save the University time and money.
Northwestern's procurement diversity initiative aims to expand and strengthen these relationships through vendor opportunities and development and partnerships with advocacy organizations, ultimately striving to become a national model for supporting local businesses and contributing to a vibrant city and region.
In 2018, the contract with Northwestern's new food-service partner, Compass Group, “was the perfect launching pad to step up our day-to-day efforts,” Konrad says. “A food-service provider needs lots of vendors. If they can find a local bakery, or a small business that supplies vegeta-bles, it helps them but it also helps us support local and small businesses.”
Ana Vela’s Amanecer Taco Shop in Evans-ton had been selling breakfast tacos from a food truck outside North western’s Technological Institute on Sheridan Road, but it had been challenging for the business to grow. “Our brick-and-mortar shop is pretty far from campus for students to swing by,” she says. “When there was construction on Sheridan, we couldn’t park there anymore. We had students emailing and calling to ask, ‘How do we get your tacos closer to us?’”
A networking event for minority-owned businesses provided the solution. Vela met a University representative who let her know about Northwestern and Compass’s open call to local food vendors to explore partnership opportunities.
Amanecer has now been a partner since last fall. Compass thought Vela’s grab-and-go breakfast tacos were a good fit for the Tech Express café, where Amanecer now delivers tacos Monday through Friday mornings.
"As a local Evanston business that’s minority- and woman-owned, the challenges continue to be stacked for us,” Vela says. “Having an opportunity to showcase our product and get it into the hands of Northwestern staff and students has been great for the growth of our business.” Compass says the tacos are the café’s top-selling product, and Amanecer now sells them at Kresge Café as well.
Chicago hot-sauce maker Co-op Sauce has also benefited from the outreach efforts. “When we heard Northwestern was considering local businesses to come on board, we jumped right on it and threw our name in the hat,” says Eno Rocha, Co-op’s sales director.
Conversations with Compass led to Co-op’s locally sourced sauces being available in Northwestern dining halls. Offerings include a special Wildcat sauce, which is also sold at the campus bookstore.
Says Vela, “We do our best to get the word out, but Northwestern is massive—it’s hard for every student to know who we are.” After selling on campus for a full academic year, “a lot more people have found out about us, and students have gone out of their way to visit our shop. Sometimes as a small business, just having an opportunity to prove yourself—that you have a high-quality product—is all you need. You just need that first step to really open more doors.”