ASHBURN — The owner of a beloved South Side bakery is transforming a decades-old candy shop into a destination for chocolate lovers with help from a community grant.
Chatham’s Brown Sugar Bakery was one of the seven projects selected for the We Rise Together grant, a program funded by the Chicago Community Trust to build momentum for and support investments in Black and Latino communities. Seven projects received $6.7 million in funding in December.
Brown Sugar owner Stephanie Hart will use a $200,000 grant from the trust to repurpose Cupid Candies, a longtime, family-owned candy factory at 7637 S. Western Ave. Hart bought the space from the original owners in December 2020 and started her own candy line, Brown Sugar Life Is Sweet. She’ll need about $1.5 million in total to complete the renovations.
The additional funding will eliminate the stressors of debt, help Hart focus on modernizing the factory and put more people to work in the community, she said.
“My original goal was to make 75th Street a destination where people could really be proud of businesses in their own neighborhood,” Hart said. “Now, my new goal is to be an example of what can happen when minority companies stretch and become manufacturers of their product, supply nationwide into major stores, and the type of jobs that come with that.”
Cupid Candies was started in 1936 by Paul Stefanos, a Greek immigrant whose family came to the United States in the 1930s. The family’s first shop was at 79th Street and Ashland Avenue, where they made fudge, toffee and and popcorn, according to the company’s website.
As they expanded, they opened at 3207 W. 63rd St., 3143 W. 63rd St. and finally the Western Avenue location in 1956. Hart collaborated closely with Stefanos as she assumed control of the factory, the Tribune reported.
Hart bought the Cupid Candies factory with help from a state grant to benefit minority business owners, according to the Tribune. Hart, as a Black entrepreneur, got the state’s maximum grant of $500,000.
Hart said she “hit the ground running” at Cupid Candies. The decades-old factory needed a mountain of work to fulfill her vision, but she wanted to keep creating, she said.
Ten workers were already on staff, including a woman who’d been with the company for more than 30 years. Hart said she kept those employees on board.
After about a month, while still managing her bakeries, Hart launched her candy line.
Hart said the constant hustle and bustle of making things work was “stressful but exciting.”
“I don’t know that there are any entrepreneurs that don’t feel stressed,” Hart said. “I think stress is something you have to learn how to handle because it’s going to always be there. You could be stressed out because there’s a red light that you catch. I’m mostly excited. It’s exciting to be able to create new things.”
In a little more than a year, Hart expanded her rebranding of the candy line to include sea salt caramels, chocolate turtles and sugar-free treats.
Because Hart bought the factory, not the company, she couldn’t use Cupid Candies’ original recipes in her chocolates, she said. Instead, each piece is made with “a little brown sugar love.”
“Our chocolates are not original recipes, but what we do try to do is take the products that they made and the pride that they used in them,” Hart said. “I think we have a really great product. It’s being well received. And people like our chocolates.”
Hart said she hopes to use the Community Trust funding to reinvest in the factory so it can run at full capacity.
The roof needs to be fixed, electrical work needs to be done and the ventilation systems need to be updated, Hart said. She also hopes to get the kitchen up to par so she can bake her famous cakes at the factory. She hopes to have it all complete by October, she said.
Most importantly, Hart hopes to pave a way for future entrepreneurs in her neighborhood, she said.
“I hope that minorities look into not just starting new businesses but look to acquire businesses,” Hart said. “There are a lot of legacy businesses in our community, and there is a graying of America. There might be businesses right in your neighborhood that you can purchase, get involved in and have a history behind you instead of starting from scratch. Minorities may not typically look at buying a business, and I think it’s an opportunity for us to buy back our community.”
And for those starting from scratch, Hart hopes her factory will elevate them to bigger and better careers.
“We hope that people are compassionate, but it’s really kind of obvious that we have to take the reins and guide our own communities, build our own communities and work with each other in order to do it,” Hart said.
“I used to say you could go from the maintenance person to the baker. Now I’m saying you can start in maintenance and be the chief operating officer.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Hart received a $1.5 million grant. The story has been updated to reflect the actual grant amount, which was $200,000.
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