By Grant Pick

“What we have here is an all-new cooking sensation, Tasty Delite 3-in-1 Bake & Fry,” Michael Davis was yelling at National Black Expo. The three-day exposition was winding down at McCormick Place and the Sunday-afternoon crowd was thinning, yet the massive Davis still lured a long line of passersby to the booth occupied by Tasty Delite International, Ltd., a grandly titled if obscure maker of seasoned coating mix.

Company president Darryl Brown, garbed in a hair net and apron, was frying up batches of chicken and whiting. By 4:30 Davis, a vice president, had nearly lost his voice and the booth had sold all its boxes. But when Patricia Lee approached, trailing her two young sons, there were still samples to be had. As Lee, who heads a University of Chicago law clinic that assists Brown and Davis, bit into her coated whiting, she could take satisfaction both in the fish (“It was wonderful”) and that a Tasty Delite product was even in her hand.

The Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship (quite a mouthful in itself) is an outgrowth of a Washington, D.C. public interest law firm that champions free market principles. Three years ago, two sympathetic students at the U. of C. Law School established the clinic amid considerable controversy. Since then, law students under Pat Lee’s supervision have labored to give people like Darryl Brown their business legs.

Brown, now 46, grew up poor in Englewood. He was just out of his teens when he began selling blue jeans out of the trunk of his car. That developed into an operation where he visited working women in their homes to sell clothes and shoes. “I’d make phone calls on a Sunday and make appointments for the week,” Brown says. “The ladies would have no problem with what I brought over because they liked my taste.” Soon he was also hawking shoes to customers at a string of currency exchanges.

Brown next turned to fast-food fish. In 1984 he and an uncle opened Solomon’s Fisheries in the Loop. Solomon’s, on State Street north of Randolph, served jumbo shrimp, frog legs, and whiting fried in a spicy, wheat-based coating Brown put together, and it found an audience. “Harold Washington loved our seafood, and he gave us a certificate,” says Brown. “Oprah used to wait in line for shrimp. And we got Linda Yu, Harry Porterfield, and all the other Channel Seven people. One day a limousine pulled up, and there was Liberace in a mink coat. He bought a fish sandwich.”

In 1989 Brown sold his stake to his uncle and moved on. “I was going through a divorce and had a cloudy head,” he says. He tried construction for a period. In 1993 he and partner LeRoy Watts, a banker, launched Simon the Fisherman, a fried-fish restaurant in Hazel Crest. After a year it failed. Brown then sought financial salvation in the element common to his restaurants–the wheat-based coating.

Brown has always thought the world of his coating: “Our secret has been the blended spices, which get better, actually, the longer they sit on the shelf. In the cooking our coating also goes right into the meat, for more flavor. Cornmeal coating has never been good for your digestive tract. It takes four or five days to digest in your system, but wheat-based coating goes down in two or three hours.”

Inspired by the multimillion-dollar sales of coatings like Shake ‘n Bake and Golden Dip, Brown signed Watts up again and they started Captain Shark’s Gourmet Breading. “Our adrenaline was high, and we were in 200 stores within months,” says Brown. But they were marketing the coating only for fish. The venture went bust. “That hurt so much,” says Brown. “We couldn’t even talk.”

Brown went to work as a forklift operator and then as a stacker. “My girlfriend left me, and I was having trouble paying my rent,” he says. As the 90s waned, Brown went back to the idea of bringing his coating to market. “Darryl, you don’t have any money,” Watts told him. But he was undeterred. He saw now that the coating should be marketed for chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetables–and for both baking and frying. Its versatility would surely elevate it above the competition, Brown figured.

Joined this time by two old friends, Michael Davis, a shoe salesman turned UPS unloader, and Michael Sharp, a Boys and Girls Club program director, Brown set off once more. The new concern was incorporated as Tasty Delite in early 1998. The company set up shop in a low-rent business incubator building in Chicago Heights, and Brown’s intent was to create a small factory there. But soon Tasty Delite was on the verge of collapse–because it couldn’t find investors.

Davis heard about the Institute for Justice Clinic from an acquaintance at a bus stop and suggested that Brown go there for legal advice, something Tasty Delite lacked. “Oh, we’d had a lawyer, but we could never get him on the phone,” says Davis, “and we were paying for the privilege.” Brown went to see Pat Lee in October 1998.

The clinic had been the inspiration of Jim Ho and Mark Chenoweth, U. of C. law students and free-market enthusiasts. “Here we were at the U. of C., getting this incredible legal education, but surrounding us on the south side were people in dire straits,” says Ho, now a lawyer in Washington. “We thought, what could we do to support those people, consistent with our vision of a free society?” During the summer of 1997 Ho and Chenoweth had attended a Washington conference sponsored by the Institute for Justice, and they and IJ president Chip Mellor had talked over the idea of a clinic nurturing inner-city entrepreneurs.

Since its founding in 1991, the libertarian Institute for Justice has cut a high profile. It opposed the nomination of law professor Lani Guinier, an affirmative-action proponent, as director of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. It’s championed school vouchers. It’s sued to overturn government rules and regulations that Mellor says crimp the “economic liberty” of small-business owners.

U. of C. law professor Richard Epstein, a self-described “market-based liberal,” was delighted by Ho and Chenoweth’s idea from the outset. He now calls the clinic “a perfect mix from every point of view. You need to break down barriers to entry to every market.” But liberal law students were less excited.

The student board of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, which serves indigents on issues of crime, mental health, and employment discrimination, resisted Ho and Chenoweth’s proposal. “We thought their clinic would have a clear ideological bent, which is screw the government,” says one former Mandel board member who insists on anonymity. “It would alienate those students at the law school who aren’t conservative, and the U. of C’s reputation as a conservative think tank would only increase.” This opposition was also irked that eligibility for the clinic’s aid wouldn’t be based on indigence, a key liberal tenet, but on the strength of a business plan.

An open meeting in early 1998 featured Mellor, his associate Clint Bolick, and two free-market clients (a hair braider and a taxicab operator) speaking for the clinic, but the contentious event failed to convince the critics. Eventually Douglas Baird, then dean of the law school, authorized the clinic. Students would have to take a course in entrepreneurial law in order to participate, and they would act principally as consultants rather than litigators. The clinic would be a separate entity, rather than a part of the Mandel clinic. Pat Lee, a former corporate lawyer for the McDonald’s Corporation, became director. The project is funded at $300,000 a year by three private foundations.

Lee was on board just a few months when Brown walked in. “Darryl had a fledgling venture, with no financing,” Lee recalls. “He had the name Tasty Delite, but only the drawing of a box. The business plan was cryptic. But there was something in his voice, a passion that wasn’t to be denied.” Lee and law student Dan Liljenquist became Tasty Delite’s consultants.

They pressed Brown for a better business plan and kept up his enthusiasm when Tasty Delite had to abandon its incubator home. They crafted a nondisclosure agreement for Brown to protect himself with during some preliminary buyout discussions with Kentucky Fried Children, Pillsbury, and General Mills–talks that came to nothing.

“The people we help often just need encouragement,” says Liljenquist, who once ran discount jewelry stores in Utah while a student at Brigham Young University. “They don’t know how to run a meeting or act as a group or keep associates to their word. With Tasty Delite we acted as arbiters between Darryl and others in the company who tried to take it in different directions in terms of cash flow and corporate governance.” At one point Brown’s advisers persuaded him to ease aside the company treasurer, who was lukewarm about the firm’s future.

The great boon to Tasty Delite was a $7,000 grant from the Opportunity Foundation, a New Jersey-based family philanthropy that has begun to make small awards to worthy new entrepreneurs. The grant paid for a redesigned box. The vivid new package pictures cooked-up chicken on a plate with lemon and parsley and lots of jazzy lettering.

The Institute for Justice Clinic now assists some 30 other clients, most of them businesses but a few nonprofits. The list includes the inventor of a blouse for nursing mothers, a mother of four who operates a gift-basket business from her South Shore home, and the Pocket Opera Company, which mounts short productions at the Duncan YMCA.

The clinic helped Pocket Opera gain federal nonprofit status. “That required an enormous amount of work that I, as a composer, had no idea of whatsoever,” says John Eaton, the Pocket Opera founder who doubles as a University of Chicago professor of music composition. Kimberly Smith, who runs the gift-basket business, got support in crafting a general contract. The clinic has also sailed into choppier waters, more in keeping with the Institute for Justice’s mission. It’s been defending the Jimmy Morgan Taxi Association, a black-owned cab company, against city charges that its cabs fail to respond to calls quickly enough. “We also want them to help us revive the old jitney service up and down King Drive,” says president James Morgan.

Clients seem pleased with the law students assigned them. “The students behave and are as knowledgeable as lawyers, maybe more so,” says Barbara Todd, executive director of Rebuilding Our Community, a crime-prevention and beautification group in Woodlawn that the clinic is helping to earn nonprofit designation. The fact that it’s free contributes to client pleasure, too. Darryl Brown says, “If we’d have had to pay legal fees for the work they’ve done for us, we wouldn’t be in business now.”

Today, Tasty Delite occupies a suite of offices in an old telephone-company building in Englewood. It’s trying to gain additional capital by selling stock to relatives and friends. The small staff is toiling pretty much for sweat equity. Tasty Delite Bake & Fry is now available in independent groceries on the south and west sides, but there’s no telling if long-term success is in the cards.

Half of all small businesses fail within the first four years, says the Small Business Administration. And Dan Liljenquist points out, “By its very nature the business Darryl and his people are in is very competitive. The profit margin is razor thin. They can’t grow too fast or they’ll exhaust their capital, but they also need to get into lots of stores. And their brand recognition must be strong. But there’s no question that they’ve gotten farther than we ever thought they would. And you never know–Darryl’s an ambitious guy.”

“We’re going to be the country Shake ‘n Bake, the best thing on the shelf,” says Brown. “Down the road I see us getting into more products–hot-and-spicy coating, seasoned salt, and gravy. But what my real baby is going to be is frozen fish, like Gorton’s. Now that will really be something.”

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