Illinois Made Program Amplifies Small Businesses

Stephanie Hart is the owner of Brown Sugar Bakery which opened in 2002.
Brown Sugar Bakery has been part of Illinois Made program since it began
in 2016. PHOTO PROVIDED BY ILLINOIS OFFICE OF TOURISM.
Stephanie Hart is the owner of Brown Sugar Bakery which opened in 2002. Brown Sugar Bakery has been part of Illinois Made program since it began in 2016. PHOTO PROVIDED BY ILLINOIS OFFICE OF TOURISM.

 Illinois Made Program Amplifies Small Businesses

By Tia Carol Jones

Stephanie Hart opened the Brown Sugar Bakery on 75th Street in 2002. Since then, Brown Sugar Bakery has expanded to include a space in the former Cupid Candies building where she makes candy.


Hart said it has been 20 years of hard work, in the beginning the bakery was open seven days a week. In 2019, Hart started looking for more space for the bakery. Her idea was to get a factory to make more cakes and deliver them to the bakery locations.
Hart’s Brown Sugar Bakery is one of the small businesses in Illinois that are part of the Illinois Made Program. She became Illinois Made in 2016, when the program first started.


The Illinois Made Program was launched in 2016. It was driven by the Illinois Office of Tourism to give tourists a quintessential Illinois experience. Outside of the state’s world class attractions – museums and architecture – are the small businesses in Illinois. Those small business owners are artists, artisans and crafters.


“We felt like this was a great way to shine the spotlight on our small businesses,” said Daniel Thomas, Deputy Director of the Illinois Office of Tourism.


Illinois Made has continued to grow with 276 makers in the program. Thomas called it an intersectionality between the artisans, small businesses and the job creator, while connecting that to the Illinois visitor experience. It gives those visitors something they can only get in Illinois.


The businesses in the program are either nominated by a visitor or they can self-nominate. Since 2016, there are 17 African American-owned businesses that are part of Illinois Made throughout the state. In the recruiting, the Illinois Office of Tourism ensures it has diversity across the Illinois Made Program.


“Brown Sugar Bakery has been a success story. Stephanie, hasn’t just been about her storefront locations, but has also evolved into manufacturing,” Thomas said.


There also was a location of the Brown Sugar Bakery in Navy Pier, from that, Hart learned how important tourism is to Illinois. Even though the location closed April 2023, it put Brown Sugar Bakery on a larger scale, because of the number of tourists that visit Navy Pier.


“I also learned that kind of statewide visibility can have an impact on your business and on your community,” Hart said, adding that being part of Illinois Made brought more people to her 75th Street location.


Hart said people would come to her 75th Street location and visit 5 Loaves Eatery, or Lem’s or Soul Veg after visiting her bakery. It brought an exposure to 75th Street that Hart was proud of. Illinois Made helped Hart think more broadly as an entrepreneur and helped her desire to put her neighborhood on a statewide and national stage. The Brown Sugar Bakery is part of Choose Chicago and Hart is very active in tourism because she sees the impact and how much it matters.


“Illinois Made helped the DNC want to come here to do the convention. Getting involved in things like that make a difference,” she said. “I love being Illinois Made.”


Hart would advise any entrepreneur who is trying to grow their business in the state of Illinois to understand it is important to be seen and important to share their passion, love and extend beyond their border. She credits Illinois Made with the beginning of her shipping Brown Sugar Bakery goods nationwide. Illinois is the No. 1 state for Brown Sugar Bakery shipping nationwide, California is No. 2.


This most recent class of Illinois Made has been its largest and most diverse since the program started. Businesses that are in the program have the opportunity to be part of something larger from a tourism marketing perspective. Those business are part of the Illinois Office of Tourism’s Enjoy Illinois Travel Guide, as well as the social media platforms and seasonal gift guides.


“What I’ve experienced in the last couple of years, is a real community of makers,” Thomas said. “What I hear from these makers is their anecdotal stories of how it’s amplified their business, how it’s helped their business grow. We know it’s working for these small businesses.”


For more information about Illinois Made, visit illinoismade.com. People can look at the criteria for nominating a business via the website.


For more information about Brown Sugar Bakery, visit www.brownsugarbakerychicago.com.

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