A Conversation with Camille Kerr of ChiFresh Kitchen

• 4 min read

“We focus on formerly incarcerated people because that’s where the barriers are.” ChiFresh Kitchen, jump-started under unlikely conditions in early 2020, has a solid business footing and a vision for growth.

image: ChiFresh KitchenChiFresh Kitchen team, from left to right: Sarah Stadtfeld (member-owner), Danny McWilliams (member-owner), Camille Kerr (consultant), James Dalton (consultant), Edrinna Bryant (member-owner), Kimberly Britt (member-owner), Renee Taylor (member-owner).

Back in November 2018, co-op veteran Camille Kerr began planning a new project, a business which would center marginalized groups — including formerly incarcerated people — as decision-makers.

She had only moved to Chicago a few months earlier, partly because she was aware that the growing co-op scene there was led by Black and Latinx women.

OM:

What was your initial idea for the business?

CK:

At first I was considering staffing, because it is such an accessible industry for folks coming out of prison. I was thinking of buying or converting a business — but the issue of sending formerly incarcerated folks to other people’s workplaces where they would still be subject to other people’s oppression, and so on — it is hard to build community that way, the members wouldn’t even see each other.

So I decided to bring in some community organizers — Joan Fadayiro, who helped organize Cooperation 4 Liberation, her friend Angie, also a radical organizer. In early 2019 Joan then brought in an advisory board that was majority formerly incarcerated folks. It included Collette Payne, a well-known advocate for formerly incarcerated women, and Janice Peters from Action Now.

We met weekly for months, doing lots of homework. We finally came up with a list of options: a laundry, a food service business, or a logistics company. We had some conflict over this decision but we finally agreed: OK, no laundry, maybe we’ll do logistics. Then a team member argued we should specifically do cold storage! But logistics just didn’t sit well with me. It sounded like the opposite of liberating, horrible.

OM:

So you went with a food service business — ChiFresh Kitchen.

CK:

Yes, partly because I knew the owners of a Boston-based Black-owned company called City Fresh Foods which was moving to worker-owned. They offered to help us with working out our model. And they were already making money in the space — 130 employees, $10 million in revenue, doing close to 20,000 meals a day, in another metro area, and non-competitive.

OM:

What was your first meeting like with the interested worker-owners? It was four Black women and one Black guy, right?

CK:

Right. It was December 5, 2019. Collette reached out to some people and then we had a little group. I was nervous, I hadn’t even memorized everybody’s names yet.

OM:

So you gave them the co-op pitch!

CK:

Yes and they had different reactions. Renee was like, “Uh yeah, maybe I’d give up my job for this”. (Laughs.) Sarah and Moody were like, “Uh, sure. Wait, you’re saying there’s money involved?” Kim was like, “I’m all in — when do we start!” And Danny was more like, “Yeah, this seems cool. Let me learn a little more.”

OM:

It must have sounded like a different planet to them from their usual job prospects.

CK:

Because there were NO barriers. Barriers are killers. The new employer tells them, You’re perfect for this job. And then 90 days later the background check comes in and you’re immediately fired, you know?

The reason we focus on formerly incarcerated people is not because there’s anything innately good or bad about them. It’s just because that’s where the barriers are. These are beautiful humans that are facing overwhelming barriers. So let’s get rid of them.

They’re people, they’re just people. Who’ve dealt with shit, you know? I’m really close with some team members, a little less close with others. Some of us have personality stuff in common, and each of us has different talents. All of our members had a hard, hard childhood. If I grew up in that situation, I’d be in exactly the same place. It’s just circumstances.

OM:

I read that even before the pandemic, 43% of formerly incarcerated Black women were unemployed — as compared to 35% for FI Black men, 23% for FI white women, and 18% for FI white men.

But the pandemic affected your launch plans, correct? As if starting a new business isn’t hard enough, you actually launched early?

CK:

Yeah, the impact of Covid meant we had to get going, because the members needed work. We were just running on donations at first. And we could only offer members 16 hours a week for a while. But everybody was great with that — because it was more than they were getting elsewhere or it was on top of some other job they had. And I’m thinking, how long can we make the money last?

OM:

And ChiFresh is paying a living wage — $18 / hour and you got up to a 40-hour minimum workweek, correct? Plus benefits?

CK:

Right.

OM:

And your role is basically that of a pro bono consultant for ChiFresh?

CK:

Correct.

OM:

So you launch early, but luckily customers jumped right in with you — schools, nursing homes, after-school programs, community organizations. And you’re part of Chicago’s Good Food Purchasing Program for groups supporting urban ag and economic / racial justice?

CK:

Yes, all these partnerships are key. The majority of our work in this first year was meals to community members experiencing food insecurity with our partners at Urban Growers Collective and the Chicago Food Policy Action Council.

OM:

And I read your original budget to start up was $150K?

CK:

Yes, through grants, my investment, and a GoFundMe campaign — but our account has never gone below $50K. So did we really need that much to start? Maybe we could have done it on $80K.

OM:

Tell us about your future goals.

CK:

OK, so last year we were 5 members (worker-owners) doing 50,000 meals. This year we want 9 members doing 100,000 meals. By 2025, we want 100 ChiFresh members doing 2.5 million meals.

We’re also hoping to create worker funds — an emergency fund, a healing and growth fund, a worker entrepreneurship fund . . .

And we want to replicate the model elsewhere — so we’ve got those conversations going.

OM:

Sounds like the team is pretty bought in at this point.

CK:

I think so. I remember when we were setting up and I passed around the legal documents to make everybody worker-owners. One of the team said to me, This is great — I’ve never seen my name on a piece of paper like this before.

And it helps the ownership thing when we cut everybody a $6,000 dividend check like we did last month. That helps a lot.

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