A recent grand opening for a new restaurant on the West Side is a dream come true for its founder who served time in a federal prison.
Family, friends and supporters joined Nichelle Benford, 36, on Jan. 27, as she opened Dream Chef Kitchen & Restaurant, 611 S. California Ave., in the Garfield Park neighborhood. Since she was five years old, Benford, who previously was a model, said she has always cooked.
"Cooking just came natural for me," said Benford, who graduated in 2008 from Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute at Kennedy-King College. "It has always been something I enjoyed doing."
But Dream Chef Kitchen is not a soul-food restaurant but an eatery that serves "comfort" food. Dinner meals run between $9 and $14 and desserts are also available.
"When I say 'comfort' I mean foods like chicken, beef pot roast, salmon, and salads. Foods that make you feel good," explained Benford. "I want my customers to leave my restaurant happy, satisfied and eager to return."
But the road to entrepreneurship did not come easy for Benford, who was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice and in 2010 was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison, but only served 14 months.
"I enrolled in a program while in prison that shaved one year off my sentence and instead required me to stay at a halfway house for six months once I was released," recalled Benford. "Originally, my boyfriend was being investigated for arson, but based off my testimony he was not charged because I said he was with me."
According to Chicago police, cell phone data showed Benford was not with her boyfriend, as she told police, when the alleged incident occurred.
Upon being released from a halfway house in December 2012, Benford launched a food truck business with a childhood friend only to dissolve her partnership a year later to start Dream Chef Catering in 2014.
"I developed good relationships with customers while we had the food truck, so I had a pretty good client base when I started the catering business," said Benford. "But I was cooking from home and renting kitchen space at places. That's when I decided I needed a brick and mortar place to do business."
And thanks to a loan by the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) Benford said she was able to lease space from the West Side Justice Center, whose office is adjacent to the restaurant.
David Doig, president of the CNI, said his organization typically makes between $10,000 and $25,000 loans to entrepreneurs and small business owners.
"Nichelle came to us with a great business plan. We looked at her plan, determined it was a good investment and we are excited she is now in business," said Doig, who attended Saturday's grand opening. "Most of our work has been on the South Side but we hope to do more lending on the West Side."
Benford signed a five-year lease with the justice center and then developed the vacant space. By end of her lease, Benford said her goal is to open a second location possibly on the South or North Side. Dream Chef Kitchen has about a half-dozen employees, including an ex-offender Benford said has been a great employee from day one.
The collaboration between the justice center and a startup business like Dream Chef Kitchen is not unusual, said Tanya Woods, executive director for the justice center.
"The West Side Justice Center is a wonderful family of so many exciting businesses and nonprofits and the Dream Chef Kitchen & Restaurant is the latest in our family," said Woods.
Support for Dream Chef Kitchen included a small investment from Helen Schiller, a former Chicago alderman in the 46th ward from 1987 to 2011.
"I am the co-manager for the West Side Justice Center building and I was delighted to help Nichelle get her dream business off ground," said Shiller.
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