Work and Money
Rising From Hardship to Owning a Restaurant
Niquenya Collins, a Chicago-based chef, community educator, and business owner, has faced several challenges throughout her life. As a teen, she raised a child in public housing while attending school full time and working to make ends meet. It was these experiences, however, that motivated Collins to help others in similar situations.
Collins became a life skills strategist and later a master business coach. The latter role eventually led her to create her own food-based company called Cocoa Chili. CircleAround spoke to Collins to find out how her past experiences led her to create her own business and the lessons she learned along the way.
1She Found Inspiration in Family Traditions
Collins knew that drawing from her own family traditions was a great place. “I come from a long line of home cooks,” Collins tells CircleAround. “From as far back as I can remember, I have been in the kitchen with my Big Mama (great grandmother), grandma, and mother, watching them hustle and bustle to get family dinners done.”
Collins treasured these moments. Cooking, eating, and spending time with family became a central focus for her, especially during holidays where she showcased her culinary abilities. She developed a number of skills simply by working in the kitchen alongside her relatives from near and far. Together, they could “have a literal smorgasbord of ethnic foods.”
These experiences encouraged Collins to make a career switch after over 25 years of coaching and helping others. “I loved watching the meals come together,” she explains. “So when I grew old enough, I got into the kitchen too, but I took my cooking to the next level.”
2She Let Curiosity Guide Her
Collins developed a career in the culinary arts after exploring ingredients, preparation methods, and cultures that inspired her.
“I really enjoy going out to eat, so whenever I have a great culinary experience, I try to recreate it at home,” Collins tells CircleAround. “I soon became well known for my gourmet meals, and the resounding question wasn't if I would open a restaurant but when.”
Collins loves recommending others try stewed chicken as a perfect introduction to her culinary style. “Just about every country across the pan-African diaspora has their own version of this easy, one-pot dish,” she states. “It's extremely versatile and can be customized by changing up the spices, veggies, and type of broth used.” She now serves meals like this and more, and markets her spice mixes and marinades in the local Chicago area.
3She Collaborated with Her Community
According to a profile in Block Club Chicago, Collins launched Cocoa Chili at the Hatchery, a food business incubator, which elevates innovation in the food industry by providing kitchen space, resources, sponsorship, and more. Even with this support, however, Collins couldn’t have expected the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
During the pandemic, there was a shift toward providing new takeout and delivery options.
“As we move forward, I'm hoping that those who survive these trying times begin to collaborate more,” she states. “We'll see shared restaurant spaces that serve a breakfast concept in the morning, then a different menu concept for lunch and dinner to maximize long-term sustainability and profitability for each.”
4She Knows the Importance of Sharing Stories
“One of the most important things I teach my clients is the power of their story,” Collins tells CircleAround. “Everyone has one, and your personal story is the best way to connect with like-minded people.”
Collins knows that your story is a powerful tool no matter where you are on your journey. Sharing it can be the difference between working on your own for years versus networking and gaining financial support from people who believe in the work you do.
“My story includes starting a business in the middle of a global pandemic as a disabled Black woman,” Collins adds. “I know struggle and what it looks like to overcome big obstacles. It is extremely important to me to help others learn how to move past their circumstances so they can live a life they love, so I share my story whenever and wherever I'm given the opportunity.”