When Brach’s threatened to shut down its west-side plant in 1990, the Center for Labor and Community Research came to the rescue. At the request of the Garfield/Austin Interfaith Action Network, the not-for-profit CLCR launched a study. The resulting document showed that if the plant closed, the state would lose nearly 7,000 jobs and more than $90 million in taxes and increased welfare and unemployment spending. It also highlighted problems with the plant–like an aging facility–that would need attention if it stayed open. Then the CLCR helped form a coalition of the local Teamsters union and dozens of civic and community organizations, which negotiated with company officials for two years before Brach’s finally agreed to stay put.

Brach’s was the battle that made news. But over the ensuing decade, as both Cracker Jack and Frango Mint moved production out of Illinois, “We came to recognize the economic importance of the candy industry,” says Friederika Kaider, who’s been an activist with CLCR for seven years.

So in 1996 the CLCR established an arm called the Candy Institute, with the goal of sustaining and developing Chicago’s confectionery industry. Kaider, an industrial relations specialist who came to the U.S. from Australia in the early 90s to pursue her doctorate in workforce development, became the institute’s director.

“Candy is big business, and Chicago is the candy capital of the world,” she says. Cook County is the second largest manufacturing county in the country, and 60,000 of those jobs are in food manufacturing. Local companies–like Goelitz Confection (which makes Jelly Bellies), Fannie May candy maker Archibald Candy Corporation, and American Licorice–collectively employ more than 9,000 workers and contribute over $200 million to the local economy.

Now the CLCR finds itself face-to-face with Brach’s again, this time as the company threatens to move most of its production to Argentina, partly because of the high price of domestic sugar (a subject Kaider calls a whole other story). While the CLCR is busy trying to get local community groups and politicians mobilized, the Candy Institute has been working on a bigger-picture solution: a kitchen incubator. “Ten years ago we had a reactive response,” says Kaider. “Now we’re adopting a proactive one.”

The institute studied other kitchen incubators around the country, then took its idea–called the Chicago Cooperative Kitchen–to the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which funded a feasibility study and agreed to contribute $3 million toward construction and equipment. With any luck the facility, a shared-use production plant intended to help both existing food manufacturers and start-up companies, should be up and running by 2003, says Kaider.

The Chicago Cooperative Kitchen will be a one-stop resource: besides housing a test kitchen, the facility will provide technical assistance in areas like food handling, sanitation, manufacturing procedures, and business operations. Kaider would also like to see three or four anchor tenants–existing small- or medium-size manufacturing operations–move into the building to serve as mentors for start-up clients. “We also want to do cooperative purchasing and take advantage of economies of scale,” she says. “All sorts of synergies can happen.”

Kaider’s next step is to pick a neighborhood–an area where “industry’s pulled out, but there’s not been a large amount of reinvestment.” Something centrally located would be nice too. Currently the institute is looking on the west side, where unemployment rates can run up to 40 percent.

“Food incubators not only serve to promote the industry, they’re great economic-development tools, since they provide jobs for people in the community and train them for jobs elsewhere,” says Kaider. “New businesses that come out of it are likely to stay in the community, usually because the rent is affordable and space is available.”

The Candy Institute is currently scheduling workshops and seminars to try to bring together prospective users. Contact them at 773-278-3251 or info@candyinstitute.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.