After a decade as a consultant, UChicago alumni Nicole Jordan, BA ’96, finds herself at a crossroads.
With a degree in economics and a desire to be an entrepreneur, Jordan could apply to business school. Or she could develop her love of cooking and entertaining and go to culinary school.
Jordan chose the less-traveled path and completed the Culinary Arts and Management program at the (now defunct) Illinois Institute of Arts in 2005. Eventually, she started Nicole Jordan Catering, a company that prides itself on its high-quality service and food.
Now an alumnus of the Polsky Center’s Financial Fundamentals and Small Business Growth Program, Jordan is launching a second business, City Operations, using her business consulting experience and culinary skills to help small food businesses grow and become economic engines for 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 you can’t have a small heart.”
From consultation to catering
Jordan traces her passion for cooking back to her grandmother, who started working as a maid at the Knickerbocker Hotel and eventually worked in the kitchen, “she was a beast,” Jordan said. “All 4’11” or her. She later opened her own restaurant with Jordan’s uncle, inspiring Jordan with her culinary and entrepreneurial talents.
Choosing to go to culinary school planted the seeds for Jordan’s career change, but it took her a while to leave the familiar field of business consulting. She ended up spending 20 years in consulting and project management, focusing on advising startups on everything from healthcare benefits to technology. Her attempt to start a catering business on the side was put on hold, given her busy travel schedule.
In early 2016, after receiving the final bonus, Jordan quit his job at JPMorgan and left corporate America for good. With the help of a friend, she officially launched Nicole Jordan Catering in a shared kitchen space in the Beverly community.
“Thankfully, I live my startup life as a consultant because I’m basically jumping off a cliff every day,” Jordan said.
Thanks to her strong professional network, Jordan’s business has grown rapidly through word of mouth. By September 2016, she had moved into her private kitchen in McKinley Park, a central location she hopes will help her reach clients downtown and give her more space to take larger orders.
With her consulting experience, Jordan focuses on delivering exceptional client service. She views the relationship with her clients as a partnership to optimize their experience throughout the engagement lifecycle.
“I believe in customer experience,” she said. “It generates a lot of customer loyalty.”
Jordan made a lot of mistakes along the way. One of the biggest problems, she says, is undervaluing yourself when it comes to pricing.
“I don’t charge enough,” she said. “I left a lot of money on the table.”
Despite his business background, Jordan still has a lot to learn about running his own company. Before finding her way to the Polsky Center, she participated in a number of small business support programs, including the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program.
Jordan enrolled in Polsky’s Small Business Growth Program in spring 2021 and the Small Business Finance Fundamentals course that summer, a new 10-week program funded by the Equitable Business Growth Fund that offers educational workshops, tailored Technical assistance and advice related to financial capital pathways and preparation. Both programs target minority- and women-owned businesses in Chicago’s South and West.
Fundamentals of Finance provides Jordan with strategies for dealing with financial structures, including how to deal with debt, and encourages her to leverage her audience in different ways to create other sources of income.
“It put me in a regimen, in the same room with other businesses and networks, and it allowed me to get out of my own head and get other perspectives,” Jordan said.
The new insights come at a critical time, as the COVID-19 pandemic forces her to step back and reassess her business. With all catering orders cancelled for most of 2020, Jordan used every small business grant and loan available to feed frontline workers and use the time to strategize to stay afloat.
She decided to move away from hosting small, private events such as weddings to focus on institutional clients such as hospitals, universities and corporations, which tend to host larger events with more direct budgets for greater efficiency.
“Economics says you have to narrow down to niches that are more profitable,” Jordan said. “It helps to standardize the way we eat.”
As her menus and catering processes become more streamlined and standardized, Jordan is stepping back from her day job of chopping onions to focus on growing her new strategy consulting business.
Urban Operation is designed to help small food-based businesses address what Jordan calls “jankness” in their operations and structure themselves internally to improve operational efficiency, productivity and profitability.
The ultimate goal, she said, is to transform the mindset of businesses of color so they can grow together and create a profitable knock-on effect for other businesses in the community.
“Small doesn’t mean you’re a small potato,” she said. “Just a little change can really amplify the growth of your business and impact the communities where you really create the economy. You are the economy.”
article author Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Deputy Director of Media Relations and External Communications at the Polsky Center. A longtime reporter, Alexia was most recently a business reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Via reaching Alexia e-mail Or tweet @alexiaer.