When the lease on Valeria Socorro Velazquez Lindsten’s bakery was up in summer 2021, she began remodeling an old dry cleaner up the road to build out her dream shop. It seemed like a sure thing: Loba Pastry + Coffee was Chicago magazine’s Best New Bakery in 2016, among other plaudits, and Velazquez Lindsten, who got her start as a pastry chef in Chicago’s fine dining kitchens after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico, has legions of fans devoted to her short, tight, focused program of pineapple sourdough muffins and red mole croissants.
Having failed to get a small business loan, customers came through to help Velazquez Lindsten raise about $75,000 through two crowdfunding campaigns over 2021 and 2022. Still, 18 months later, Loba hadn’t reopened, and so in early 2023, Velazquez Lindsten launched a third round of crowdfunding. As the process dragged on, it seemed unclear if Loba would ever reopen, and Velazquez Lindsten felt caught in a loop of making ends meet while chasing after resources. After finishing her buildout, however, and clearing the City of Chicago’s permitting requirements, the doors are open again at Loba’s new location. In reflecting on the process, Velazquez Lindsten’s story illustrates how precarious opening a small bakery remains for operators without major backing — and the benefits and limits of turning to crowdfunding. — Rachel P. Kreiter
Looking back, I can see every mistake I made very clearly. I didn’t have any doubts that I could get a loan from a bank. I wasn’t starting a business, I was just continuing a business I’d run for five solid years, including surviving COVID. I really thought all I needed to do was make sure that my business plan reflected taking over a new space and building it out according to laws and regulations. It was August 2021, and I was sure that I would be open by December that year. That was so silly.
When I started processing the business license, that’s when I realized all these people needed to be involved. It didn’t matter if there was a business in my space already, it still needed to go to the zoning department, and they still needed to approve it, and the building department needed to approve it. Every step forward sent me five steps backward. So, in short, my original estimate of how much it was going to cost changed significantly. If I really only needed to clean out and move in, then the $65,000 that I originally estimated would have been enough.
I wish I had asked, what happens if this doesn’t work? I should have asked more directly, what if $65,000 isn’t enough? What if my new space isn’t zoned for a bakery? I don’t know what kind of person would have known to ask these questions, or who could have told me. That’s the thing that has been very defeating during this whole process. I thought I knew enough by having the business, by meeting with the city’s Small Business Center, and then I thought I knew enough by meeting with friends who had gone through this process. Every time that I felt like I had a handle on this, it turned out that I knew nothing.
I wish I knew before I started this that my kitchen would be held to the same scrutiny as a restaurant’s. I had to hire an architect, which wasn’t in the budget. He had to get approval from an engineer. We had to demonstrate that we were in compliance with regulations around fire safety and maximum capacity — thinking about it now, of course a business needs these things. It needs to be accessible. I’m not complaining about that. I just did not get this scrutiny with Loba’s first location.
Eventually, I did find out why banks wouldn’t lend me money for the new location: Loba was closed, so there was no proof of current income to pay the loan back. I had projections that were based on five years of tax returns, and I had five years of income. They’ll give you as much money as you want but you have to have at least that much in the bank. So if I want to start a restaurant and I’m asking for $100,000, I need to have at least $100,000 in cash or assets. And as a single restaurant owner, that’s impossible. If I had $100,000 dollars, I would not be asking for $100,000.
I’m originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to the States when I was 15 years old. In 2010 I moved to Chicago to pursue higher education. It didn’t work out. I found out that I wasn’t good at college. I had only known English for six years, and when writing papers, I would just run out of words. So I gave up, and the first six months in Chicago were very hard. I was trying to figure out my place in the world, and I answered a Craigslist ad for a pastry intern in a Michelin-starred kitchen, One Off Hospitality’s Blackbird, which closed at the height of COVID. I didn’t know what Michelin stars were. I didn’t know what fine dining was, but I decided to take the chance and from my first day, it just fit.
I was at Blackbird for around 10 or 11 months, as an intern full-time, for free. It was great. My first day working in the kitchen I immediately felt at home. My mom, grandmother, and great grandmother were very into making everything from scratch, from grinding their own masa on a stone metate to roasting their own coffee because they liked it a certain way, and getting up early in the morning to get the freshest milk that they could from the stable. Seeing some of the things that I grew up with being replicated and elevated and cared for in a very fancy setting, at this Michelin-starred restaurant, was just amazing.
After that, I started working at another fine dining kitchen as a pastry assistant. My pastry chef moved on and took another job a few months into it, so even though I wasn’t experienced enough, I had to run the pastry side of the kitchen. I was definitely too young to be in charge of a kitchen, but I did the best that I could. After working a full year there, I decided that I needed to do internships to learn more. After taking an internship here and there, I found a position as a pastry cook in a mid-level restaurant. I wanted to see how restaurants ran.
I found this coffee shop, Bad Wolf, and I started back at square one. I started working for free, then I was hired. When the lease came up, I bought the equipment, took over the lease, and founded Loba in January 2016 with an expanded bakery program. I opened it with $15,000, and I was able to do that with savings and a $10,000 loan from a nonprofit, Accion, which later evolved into Allies for Community Business. I had a business partner I would eventually buy out.
It’s not like I made a ton of money with Loba in 2020 and 2021; I thought I was going to lose the business completely. But I knew that my lease would come to an end and thought I was prepared for it. Absolutely nothing went according to plan.
In one sense, my disadvantage is I don’t have a restaurant group backing me up with their PR firm, designers that decide on a very aesthetic look, and expediters to move them through permitting and licensing faster. There’s no reason why I should get special treatment, but I’m expected to spend the money and the time as if I were building a more-than-60-seat restaurant for this tiny coffee shop-bakery. Other coffee shops and bakeries backed by these restaurant groups seem to have infinite resources. They get to open up very quickly and their food is top-notch and impressive. They get to excel, and I want to perform to a level that is comparable. But it’s that much harder for me to even get started, and then that much harder to get noticed. If you have to work this hard to even open, it doesn’t matter how good your food is; you’re always playing catch-up with the money to get the place open, with the ingredients that you’re able to buy. If I could open a Michelin-starred coffee shop, I would. It’s just never going to be within my means.
I was ashamed to ask for money; I did not want to resort to crowdfunding, but I didn’t want to bring on investors, either. One of my main motivations for having this shop is to be a sole owner — it’s this idea of not having to rely on anybody but myself. So, crowdfunding was and continues to be a desperate but needed option. Asking for help is really hard to do. I’m not proud of it. It doesn’t make me feel happy. I still can’t go through the GoFundMe messages, because they make me cry. I couldn’t even post updates, because I wanted the update to be, “The shop is back open, thanks for your support.” Confronting how invested people are in Loba, and me, reinforced that the shop wasn’t open yet, and I felt like I was letting people down.
I’m opening the shop for me; it is my livelihood and I feel like it’s my calling. But aside from baking, and providing this very obvious service of coffee and pastries, it’s just truly what I enjoy doing. Waking up early and greeting people, and talking to people regularly — I miss that a lot. It came so naturally. I really enjoyed getting to know every single customer that let me get to know them.
I hope their perception of me doesn’t change because I had to ask for money. A lot of crowdfunding campaigns have popped up since COVID. People might be tired of seeing another business asking for support, another person asking for money. I see a lot of GoFundMe campaigns and it doesn’t make me feel great that I’m just one more, but if I could find the money somewhere else, I would. What can you do when you need a lot of money, and one single entity is unwilling to lend it to you? Instead of going to a bank, you go to everyone you know. If you can’t find somebody to loan you $50,000 to $60,000, then maybe 400 people can loan you $20 each. That’s the benefit of crowdsourcing: I don’t have a lot of money to give, but if I give $20 to someone and that’s the difference between them being houseless or not, then yeah, I’ll do that. And yet I still have mixed feelings about relying on it myself.
Waiting for Loba to reopen, I’ve been doing a lot of random things. I got a job at Anthropologie. For a while I was working at Loaf Lounge as a pastry assistant. I’ve also been volunteering my time whenever possible at Lakeview Pantry. Last year I donated some equipment to Frieda’s Place in the South Side Back of the Yards neighborhood; she opens her house to feed people that are unhoused. It’s fun; she’s a great person, and I wish I could volunteer there more often. I did a bread demo for Impact Culinary, a West Side nonprofit that teaches kids and young adults of underserved communities cooking skills so they can find a job in a kitchen. They get about 15 people per six-month term. It was great to see a new generation of cooks growing in a nurturing environment. I wish I could do that more.
I feel like I thrive in these environments of pressure and strict rules. I’m always willing to learn more, to be more capable, to advance. But in this situation, I may be way out of my league, and it doesn’t feel like thriving. It feels like flailing. I flailed through the whole process, but I’m so close to finishing this. It still doesn’t feel like I’m winning — or maybe “winning” isn’t the right word. I want to accomplish what I set out to do, which is reopening the shop. I don’t feel like I’m doing it triumphantly; I don’t know if I’ve learned any lessons.
If somebody asked me, “Hey, can you write a list of what is needed to open a coffee shop-bakery in the city of Chicago?” I don’t know that I could, because although the city sets out guidelines, my experience fulfilling them has made me feel like there are unspoken gray areas. I cannot tell where I’ve been unprepared, or what is just my lack of funding or unhelpful contractors. I don’t feel triumphant because I just can’t define it. My assumption is that I don’t have enough resources, and I didn’t ask the right questions, but it seems like there’s so much more to it. And I kind of still feel in the dark. So to do it triumphantly — what is that, right now? I just wanted to accomplish what I set out to do, and that is reopen the shop.