PORTAGE PARK — Three years ago, Fannie’s, a popular bakery and restaurant on the Northwest Side, was doing well.
After opening the first-ever bakery within a library, Stephanie Rybandt decided it was time to have a space of her own to grow the booming business.
She found a storefront at 5040 W. Montrose Ave., in the neighborhood she grew up in, and opened up shop. The menu of cookies and coffee grew, and neighbors began stopping in for breakfast, lunch and special events.
But with the move came a string of bad luck — and now Rybandt is asking those who love the cafe for help to stay open.
Rybandt launched the GoFundMe campaign on Wednesday, asking for a total of $65,000 to help Fannie’s pay back rent and payments to the State of Illinois on taxes owed. As of Friday morning, the GoFundMe had raised $13,619 of its $65,000 goal.
“You know it’s bad when your accountant looks at you and says, ‘Everything can’t go wrong, Steph,’” Rybandt said. “In the first 18 months of opening [on Montrose] we experienced five major power outages and three major plumbing failures.”
The business sits near the corner of Montrose and Milwaukee avenues, down the street from where Rybandt grew up. For as long as she can remember, her dream was to open her own business, where she could bake treats from scratch and also help foster a sense of community.
“I always talked about opening a shop. You know how people have that mythic thing they say they’re going to do one day. ‘When I have my shop,’” she said. “Well that was me, my whole life. So then I decided to try it out.”
In 2012, she started baking cookies for the Portage Park farmers market, to see if her baked treats would be good enough to build a business around.
“We sold out at the first farmer’s market,” she said. “People kept on saying things like, ‘You use real butter’ or ‘Gosh, I haven’t had a peanut butter cookie since my grandmother.’ And that was my goal, to make something that I thought was getting lost, something hand made from scratch with love. I didn’t want that to get lost.”
From there Rybandt started baking out of a shared kitchen, filling orders for local coffee shops and eventually being able to move into a small 600 square foot cafe inside Eisenhower Library in suburban Harwood Heights.
That tiny cafe was where Rybandt began seeing the community building she had always wanted for her business really start to take off.
“That’s when the mission of Fannie’s really started to take shape. I realize that our mission was crafting community,” she said. “We promote things that are made from scratch, by hand and with intention and we share it. I feel like that’s what humans have been doing since the beginning of time.”
Over the years that mission has included raising funds for the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation by baking “Cop Cakes,” where 50 percent of the proceeds from the cupcakes’ sale is donated back to the memorial fund. Fannie’s also raised over $700 at a special brunch for people displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
“For the Valentine’s day season we do a spread the love campaign,” Rybandt said. “We ask neighbors to dig through their closets and find purses or backpacks they don’t use anymore and we collect them and other donations like personal hygiene products. And we distribute them to local homeless shelters.”
When Pizza by Alex left its Montrose Ave. location in 2015, Rybandt decided to give Fannie’s a home of its own. Before the pizzeria left, she’d had her wedding rehearsal dinner and her father 50th birthday party at the restaurant.
“There had already been some special family moments in this space. And when I needed to expand and this was available, it was crazy,” she said. “It was a perfect size for everything that I wanted to do.”
But moving without any outside investment was a risk — and each bad thing that happened to the building hit the business hard.
“It was just one loss after another. But I kept saying, you know I have these years under my belt and maybe some local bank could help us,” she said.
Despite being profitable at the library bakery and farmer’s markets, Rybandt said banks declined to give her a small business loan.
She ended up taking out loans at very high interest rates to cover the cost of the outages and plumbing issues, alongside the rent increases, payroll increases and insurance costs.
Rybandt struggled with the idea of using crowdfunding to help Fannie’s pay its debts, because sharing the story of why she needed financial help was a difficult story to tell. But in the end she decided to turn to the Portage Park community and Fannie’s fans to ask for help.
“To just fight this hard and then go down because the electric in the building failed and there’s no break for the little guy, I can’t see our story ending like this,” she said. “Maybe there isn’t someone out there to help the little guy, but maybe the other little guys can help the little guy.”
On the GoFundMe page, Rybandt assured neighbors that giving to Fannie’s is not supporting a lost cause. Once she digs out of that Year One hole, the business will be on solid footing, she said.
Owen Brugh said, chief of staff for Ald. John Arena (45th), said it’s frustrating when a quality local business like Fannie’s runs into a problem like this.
“They’ve been a fantastic resource of the neighborhood,” Brugh said. “They’ve been very generous to the community, that’s for sure, and we want to see them stay.”
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