Evanston’s sweet spot
Evanston RoundTable, March 7, 2023
Jean Kroll comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. Her great-grandfather on her mother’s side owned and operated movie theaters in central Wisconsin, as did her grandfather. Her paternal grandfather ran a general store in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Her mom ran a clothing store in Wausau, Wisconsin, and her dad ran an automotive service center. Her sister is an executive consultant.So it was no surprise when in 1997 Kroll, a longtime Evanston resident and Loyola University graduate in economics, started her own business. Partnering with a friend, she made and sold freshly baked cookies to Northwestern University students. Her friend worked college campuses on the east coast.
“My grandmothers were fantastic bakers,” she said, explaining her career choice.
In 1999, Kroll split off on her own and established Sugar & Spice, now known by the brand name I Love Sweets.
Kroll’s first operation, just a thousand square feet, was located under the Foster Street el station in Evanston. “We started out hand-scooping cookies,” she recalled. “It was hard work and highly inefficient.” Aside from Northwestern students, she sold to local outlets such as Café Express, D&D Finer Foods and several White Hen Pantry stores.
With the business growing, in 2010 she expanded to a 10,000-square-foot facility at 1205 Hartrey Ave., and eight years later moved to her present 22,000-square-foot location around the corner at 2000 Dempster St., next to Temperance Brewery. With the help of some 13 associates, she bakes and sells “millions and millions” of sweets a year that are sold nationwide, she said.
She started with a broad array of cookies, including chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, M&M and peanut butter. Over time she has added brownies, scones, short bread, biscotti bites, loaf cake and coffee cake. As a wholesaler, she sells to retail outlets around the country. For a time she even sold to an airline caterer who supplied Lufthansa, Iberia and Qatar, which meant her treats went global.
Locally, I Love Sweets’ products are available at Backlot Coffee and Brothers K in Evanston, New York Bagels & Bialys in Skokie and Lincolnwood and Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago among other outlets.
The operation is highly automated, with industrial size ovens, driers and high-speed packaging equipment. There’s even a metal detector, to ensure no metal pieces, no matter how tiny, are packaged with her confections. She operates under Global Food Safety Initiative guidelines and is HACCP certified. Her factory is inspected by the City of Evanston, the State of Illinois, and, every two years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She is also Kosher certified. Samples of all her products are sent to local laboratories to ensure safety.
Today her I Love Sweets branded items make up about 40% of her output. Another 40% is private label and the remainder contract manufacturing. In this latter category she described developing a new cookie for a century-old, well-known U.S. cookie manufacturer.
Despite what seems like exponential growth, the business has had its downsides. The financial crisis of 2007-8 was “brutal for small businesses. We’re like the canary in the coal mine: we see downturns way before Wall Street.
“COVID was catastrophic,” she added. Sales plummeted 70% in four months. Hotels and restaurants, two of her major client segments, were “decimated.” She had to let go of half her staff. Since then, she said, the business is slowly “clawing its way back up” in terms of recovery.
But the upsides have been, well, tasty. In 2016 Kroll was inducted into the Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame “in recognition of her success as an entrepreneur, her mentorship of other entrepreneurs and for the workplace training program for adults with autism she implements at her bakery with Have Dreams, supported by the Coleman Foundation,” according to her website.
The workplace training program was interrupted by the COVID pandemic, she explained, but she is looking at how to reinstate it.
She said she likes to hire and promote from within, and among her longtime staff are people who, under her watchful eye, handle marketing, production and customer relations.
“Everyone has more than one job,” she said, “it’s the nature of small businesses. You might do production in the morning and marketing in the afternoon. If we’re short staffed and I have to sweep the floor, I’ll do it.”
Currently Kroll is exploring how to make the business more environmentally sensitive, with more efficient waste diversion, packaging and water use.
Among her latest confection innovations are plant-based products, which use no dairy or eggs. The plant-based Hearty Breakfast Scone is available at Backlot Coffee on Central Street.
Kroll said developing new treats is a high priority and mentioned high protein and plant-based products she has come up with for companies that don’t have product-creation or manufacturing capabilities. She singled out new lactation products for nursing moms as a growing product segment.
She donated some 2,000 cookies to Northwestern’s annual Dance Marathon, held last weekend. She also sells “at a very competitive price” to Grammy’s Cookie Convoy, which provides sweet treats to U.S. military personnel around the world.
She worries about making her products and business more sustainable. “How can we be better, how can we do more?” she challenges herself. “I want to be thoughtful about our products, the planet and people enjoying our treats. Maybe that’s the goal for the next 20 years.”
In the meantime, life in the cookie factory is pretty sweet.
“I get to go to work and make cookies all day,” she said. “Even after all these years, I still think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so lucky.’”
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