Small Business Spotlight: Nicole Jordan’s Catering and Consulting Businesses Show “You Can Be Small But Not Small-Minded”
After a decade working as a consultant, UChicago alum Nicole Jordan, AB ’96, found herself at a crossroads.
With a degree in economics and aspirations to be an entrepreneur, Jordan could apply to business school. Or she could nurture her love of cooking and entertaining and go to culinary school.
Jordan opted to take the path less traveled, and in 2005, completed coursework in culinary arts and management at the Illinois Institute of Art (now defunct). Eventually she launched Nicole Jordan Catering, which prides itself on its high-touch service as much as its food.
Now Jordan, an alumnus of the Polsky Center’s Financial Fundamentals and Small Business Growth programs, is launching a second business, Urban Operation, that leverages both her business consulting experience and culinary skills to help fellow small food businesses grow and become economic engines of their communities.
“I want to put seven-figure businesses on the block,” said Jordan, a Chicago native who lives in the historic Pullman district on the South Side. “You can be small but not small minded.”
From Consulting to Catering
Jordan traces her passion for cooking to her grandmother, who started work at the Knickerbocker Hotel as a maid and eventually worked in the kitchen, where “she was a beast,” Jordan said. “All 4’11” of her.” She later opened and ran her own restaurant with Jordan’s uncle, inspiring Jordan with her culinary and entrepreneurial talents.
Choosing to go to culinary school planted the seed for Jordan’s career change, but it took a while for her to leave the familiar confines of business consulting. She ended up spending 20 years in consulting and project management, with a focus on advising startups on everything from healthcare benefits to technology. An attempt to start a catering business on the side was shelved given her hectic travel schedule.
In early 2016, with her final bonus secured, Jordan quit her job at JPMorgan Chase and left corporate America for good. With the help of a friend, she formally launched Nicole Jordan Catering out of a shared kitchen space in the Beverly neighborhood.
“Thank goodness I had lived the life of a startup as a consultant because I was basically jumping off a cliff every day,” Jordan said.
Thanks to her robust professional network, Jordan’s business ramped up quickly through word of mouth. By September 2016 she had moved into a private kitchen in McKinley Park, a central location that she hoped would help her access a downtown clientele and give her room to take larger orders.
Drawing on her consulting experience, Jordan focused on providing superior customer service. She approached her relationship with her customers as a partnership to optimize their experience over the lifecycle of their engagement.
“I am a staunch believer in the customer experience,” she said. “It has engendered a lot of customer loyalty.”
Jordan made plenty of mistakes along the way. One of the biggest, she said, was undervaluing herself when setting prices.
“I didn’t charge enough,” she said. “I left a lot of money on the table.”
Despite her business background, Jordan had a lot to learn about running her own. She participated in numerous small business support programs, including the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative, before finding her way to the Polsky Center.
Jordan enrolled in Polsky’s Small Business Growth Program in spring of 2021 and that summer in Small Business Financial Fundamentals, a new 10-week program, funded by the Fund for Equitable Business Growth, that offers educational workshops, tailored technical assistance, and consultation related to financial capital pathways and preparedness. Both programs are for minority- and female-owned businesses on Chicago’s South and West sides.
Financial Fundamentals gave Jordan tactics for approaching financial structure, including how to deal with debt, and encouraged her to leverage her audience in different ways to create other sources of revenue.
“It put me in a regimen and in a room with other businesses and networks, getting me out my own head and getting some other perspective,” Jordan said.
The new insights came at a critical time, as the COVID-19 pandemic had forced her to step back and reevaluate her business. With all catering orders cancelled for much of 2020, Jordan stayed afloat by taking advantage of every small business grant and loan available, feeding front-line workers, and using the time to strategize.
She decided to shift away from doing small private events, like weddings, to focus exclusively on institutional clients like hospitals, universities, and corporations, which tend to have bigger events with more straightforward budgets that allow for efficiencies.
“The economics said you must refine to the niches that bring more profitability,” Jordan said. “It helps to be more standardized in our approach to catering.”
Marriage of Skillsets
As her menus and catering processes become more streamlined and standardized, Jordan is stepping back from the day to day of chopping onions to focus on growing her new strategy consulting business.
The Urban Operation aims to help food-based small businesses address what Jordan calls “jankiness” in their operations and structure themselves internally so that they operate more efficiently, productively, and profitably.
The end goal, she said, is to shift the mindset of businesses of color so that collectively they can grow and create a ripple effect of profitability for other businesses in the community.
“Being small does not mean that you are small potatoes,” she said. “Shifting just a little bit can really expand the growth of a business and impact a community where you are literally creating the economy. You are the economy.”
Article by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, associate director of media relations and external communications at the Polsky Center. A longtime journalist, Alexia most recently was a business reporter with the Chicago Tribune. Reach Alexia via email or on Twitter @alexiaer.