At the new Academia Institute of Language and Culture at 308 Madison Street in Oak Park, adults can take courses such as The Neuroscience of Social Justice, Creative Writing, Japanese for Adults, and Introduction to Classical Music. The teenage set might dip their toes into Mandarin, Italian, or French, among other offerings. And younger children—preschoolers and elementary age—might attend summer camp, bilingual story times, or classes including Indian Mythology, Arabic, Greek, Polish and many more. Academia opened its doors only six weeks ago and, already, many are taking advantage of its rich curriculum for all ages.

Recently I spoke with Kaycee Militante (pictured), Director of Children’s Programming and Curriculum, to learn more about Academia. Militante has worked as a classroom teacher and a trainer of teachers. I asked her why she chose Oak Park as the location for Academia. She says, “People are curious here. We thought there was a need for it, that people were hungry for a place like this.” In the planning period, she notes, the team discovered there were many local programming options for younger children but not as many for elementary-aged, teens and adults. Academia aims to fill that gap in Oak Park.

Knowing that today’s families are busy, Academia has created a flexible model. Adults may take classes, and drop their children in another classroom for a story time and childcare while they do so. Preschool and children’s classes have flexible start times. Elementary students will be bused from local public schools to Academia for after-school offerings and a half-time kindergarten for River Forest families—including transportation—is available. Many classes work on a drop-in basis. There is even adult summer camp, and monthly family membership helps make things affordable. Militante says, “Academia’s goal is to develop a reputation for being a place that makes learning truly fun for children and adults.”

She says, “We live in a culturally and academically rich area, but sometimes it’s tough to reach Chicago to attend classes and programs that interest you.” A trip to Academia on Madison Street could be a more convenient option for learners of any age to pursue interests, discover new hobbies, build community and have fun.

Obsessed Kitchen and Bar is the newest venture of co-owners Dan and Tricia Vogel, but it’s not their first business in Oak Park. Before opening Obsessed at 800 S. Oak Park Avenue, the Vogels ran (and still run) a catering company, Food Obsession, for four years on South Boulevard. I sat down with Dan Vogel to discuss this new opening and life as a chef and owner.

Although Vogel now wears many hats within the businesses, he says, “My first love has always been cooking on the line. When the ticket printer just keeps printing and printing and printing and you just have to cook. We call it controlled chaos. […] For me, that’s the part that is the most fun. The cooking, the coming out and talking to guests.”

If you have dined at Obsessed Kitchen and Bar since its opening March 23, 2017, you will know that Vogel does circulate through the house, greeting guests. The night I was there, he came to make sure I was pleased with my burger (and I was).

One strategy Vogel uses is to hire great people who bring skills he may not have himself. He says, “The important thing is to know what I’m good at, and what I’m not good at. […] We try to surround ourselves with guys and gals that are smart and willing to put their input in.” He laughs that his middle-school-aged son is also helping him create good posts on Instagram.

Vogel’s advice for would-be business owners in Oak Park is to be proactive in forging a relationship with the Village. “Open the line of communication,” Vogel says, “Introduce yourself and really explain to them what you’re trying to do. When we opened up Food Obsession, we had them inspect us twice before we even started anything because I wanted to know what we needed to do first. When it came time for the inspection, we were able to walk through and say: You said you wanted this done? We did it.” Knowing the Village’s expectations beforehand helped the inspections go smoothly.

I asked Vogel about next projects. He does have some plans, he says, but for Obsessed Kitchen and Bar Vogel says, “We’re not trying to be anything more than a neighborhood restaurant and bar that focuses on family—and when we say neighborhood, we mean Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest, Berwyn, and whoever else wants to be in the neighborhood.” Some of his staff and many of his customers live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the restaurant.

Up and coming? Brunch! Vogel plans to start offering brunch after Fourth of July. No eggs and bacon, he says, but avocado toast, chilaquiles, huevos rancheros. “I call it Brunch Food that I’d Like to Eat,” says Vogel.

You might see him washing dishes, doing payroll, cooking, or feeding his two children a snack. No matter what he’s up to, Dan Vogel will give you a hearty hello and serve you food so fresh and tasty that you might even become obsessed with it.





Crain’s Chicago Business Roundtable

OPEDC executive director John Lynch joins a Crain’s print roundtable discussion with his peers from Skokie, Wheeling and Brookfield to discuss economic development. Read details here:

June Local Economic Development Roundtable

“We did it!” says Haj Herbert, owner of Magical Minds Studio, as I meet her early on a May morning inside her new space at 110 Madison Street. Seven years into her business—a play-based, art-based preschool program with additional offerings for school-aged children and adults—Herbert has bought her own building, had it rehabbed, and moved in. As we talk, sun floods the colorful floor tiles. Children socialize and play, busy at kid-sized tables, until a teacher takes them out to play in the grassy yard.

Since she first opened Magical Minds Studio on Harrison Street in 2007, Herbert has adjusted her model a few times. At first, she offered ten-week classes. Herbert says she learned, “Parents needed longer care or shorter care. There was a need for after-school programs. We kept tweaking it until we got it right.” Currently she offers Passport 2 Preschool, after-school programs and more.

Herbert’s best tool for “getting it right” is listening to her clients and her would-be clients—both the kids and their parents. As a working mother herself, knowing it was hard to leave her own children, Herbert says she thought, “How can I make these moms feel the trust that I feel when I take my child to a daycare?” She set about trying to create that environment. She adds, “My programming has always evolved based on what the kids want.”

I ask Herbert to name some of her keys to success. She says it’s been important for her to be available to her clients, but that she still carves out the family time she needs with her husband and two children. She adds that being clear about her vision helped her get things done. Finally, she says, she has built a relationship with her community. She says, “[Within the community], I talk up my business—and then I listen to what people say, and what they want.” Later, she is able to make programming changes or tweaks based on what she learns.

With a brand new dedicated ceramic studio and weekend hours, there’s a lot to check out at Magical Minds Studio ( in its new Madison Street home. Herbert says she is planning a grand opening celebration in June. I ask her how it feels to finally walk into her own, customized space where she can spread her wings. She answers me with one word: “Wow.”


If you walk into Taste of Brasil restaurant, 906 S. Oak Park Avenue, on a Saturday evening, you will find a lively crowd filling the tables—the standard 4-seaters toward the center, as well as the taller 2-seaters near the window. Andre Otero, half of the husband-wife owner team, is front-of-house, greeting and chatting with customers in both English and Portuguese.

All of this is cozy and inviting, but just wait until your meal reaches your table. Otero’s wife, Cristiane Pereira, is the other half of the ownership duo; one of her roles it to cook on Saturdays. She is a graduate of culinary school and her talent is evident from the first bite of their signature cheese bread, puffs of “goodness,” as she says, made (gluten-free) from taro flour and cheese. For a main dish, I ordered Feijoada, the national dish of Brazil. Everything is fresh, flavorful and beautifully presented.

Earlier this month, I had the chance to sit down with Pereira and Otero to talk about how they got started and how their business has evolved. They are both originally from Brazil, where they met. Pereira says they had the chance to buy the place seven years ago, soon after getting married. Their different skill sets help them work in a complementary way. With his engineering background, Otero is more strategic and he laughs that he “hates cooking”; Pereira, head cook, is in charge of human resources as well as all the buying. Otero says, “She’s the creative one.”

Only months after they opened, Pereira became pregnant with their daughter, Bianca. Pereira says that it was a challenge working through her pregnancy: “We didn’t have employees. All we had was two people helping. […] I used to come in [early] and only leave after we closed at night.” Otero jokes, “At age three, Bianca started to help. She could walk and deliver the cheese bread [to the tables].”

Seven years in, business is stable. They appreciate the community in Oak Park. Pereira notes, “Oak Park is very diverse. And they are willing to try new things.” They both say they value their customers and treat them more like friends. Of Oak Park, Pereira says, “I just like the fact that this is truly a community. People care about each other.”

One thing they really appreciate about Oak Park is the Health Department. Otero says, “We appreciate everything they have done. They have educated us. They have always given us time to comply.” Pereira adds, “It helps me to keep my employees on their toes. We label everything. We organize everything, the way it’s supposed to be. In these things, we have been trained by the Health Department.”

Up next for Taste of Brasil might be a move or adding a new location, still inside Oak Park. In the meantime, Pereira has created and bottled her own delicious hot sauce, called “I’m hot!”, for sale at the restaurant. The sauce boasts all local ingredients except for the special malagueta Brazilian peppers they use. They hope to increase the distribution of her hot sauce, as well as frozen cheese bread that can be baked at home. For more information about Taste of Brasil or to view the menu, visit


Open for Business March Profile: Michelle Vanderlaan

Some people seem to be born with an entrepreneurial spirit, and Michelle Vanderlaan, owner of Sugarcup Trading and 16 Suitcases, is one of those people. As an undergraduate at the College of Charleston, she was tapped to work for IBM. She worked in the corporate world for a number of years after college, but Vanderlaan says, “I knew very early on that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. […] I’ve always had that entrepreneurial interest and drive.”

When Vanderlaan became a mother, she says, “I had to make a decision about whether to continue in the corporate world because I traveled extensively.” She did choose to leave her position, but she kept very busy by sitting on not-for-profit boards. Eventually, she launched a large project as the co-president of Holmes Elementary School. After leading focus groups and gauging interest (which was high), she went forward with helping Holmes achieve Zero Waste status. Vanderlaan consulted with Gary Cuneen of Seven Generations and with others. She wrote four grants to fund the project and was awarded all of them. “I was shocked!” she says.

Things changed quickly. The community went from a parent participation rate [in Zero Waste] of “maybe 3% or 4% to over 97%,” Vanderlaan says, because the students shared their enthusiasm at home and got their parents involved. Vanderlaan started to receive invitations for speaking engagements about how to take schools to Zero Waste. Finally, a filmmaker caught wind of the project and made a documentary focused on the kids’ point of view.

Vanderlaan stepped back and said to herself, “If we can get kids this excited about recycling garbage, what if we could get them excited about recycling their toys for reuse?” Soon she started a trading post within Holmes, where students brought in gently used clothes and toys, and made use of trading cards to keep track of swaps. This trading post planted the idea for Sugarcup Trading, Vanderlaan’s Marion Street shop that she opened seven years ago.

Customers of and visitors to Sugarcup know that it’s packed with eye-catching children’s clothes, accessories and toys. In addition, the trading element remains as there is a Trade Lounge for gently used clothing and Red Tag sales periodically, the proceeds of which are donated to one of eight local charities Vanderlaan works with regularly. Being eco-friendly and giving back to the community are two key elements of Sugarcup’s mission.

Over the years, Vanderlaan heard frequently from parents that their children were sizing out of Sugarcup Trading and were missing the carefully curated products there. When her own daughter hit age 13, Vanderlaan decided to take the leap and open a new store right next door: 16 Suitcases. In focus groups, she heard from her customers and advisors that they wanted contemporary women’s clothing that is “on trend, current, fresh, updated, comfortable, quality, and, even more importantly, [on] price point,” says Vanderlaan. 16 Suitcases, open now, checks all these boxes with beauty and grace. Vanderlaan does all the buying for both stores, often traveling to New York and other places to find items that are on trend and unique.

Just as Sugarcup with its trading element and commitment to the environment and the community is more than “just a boutique,” so is 16 Suitcases. One can shop in 16 Suitcases by simply walking in and choosing items, paying for them in the store. Another way to experience this special place is by coming in and having a fitting by a stylist. You can then order “suitcases” to be delivered when you wish—16 per year. Your suitcase will include items chosen just for you, some of which will not be available in the regular shop. Keep what you like and send the rest back.

I asked Vanderlaan what advice she would give to a small business owner hoping to open in Oak Park. She had four tips. 1. “Location, location, location.” It matters where you are within the Village, so think about what you want to sell and find the right spot. 2. “Find your tribe”—and she cautions that these people who really believe in you and get your mission may be other than those you expected. Keep looking and you will find them. 3. “Give back.” Vanderlaan has built robust giving programs into her business plan and it feeds everything she does. And 4. “Hire the very best people.” Her businesses thrive, she says, because of her incredible employees who bring so much expertise and dedication to the work.

On April 1, 2017, 16 Suitcases will officially launch several exciting components. One is the subscription box service. Another is a curbside option, where you can call or order online and drive by to pick up a wrapped or unwrapped item, brought to your car. Third is ecommerce, “leveraging technology to the hilt,” Vanderlaan says. Purchases online and in the store will be possible with your phone. Finally, its website is going live very soon.

Whether you are shopping for a grandchild, a friend, a spouse, a daughter, or yourself, treat yourself to a trip to Marion Street. Sugarcup Trading and 16 Suitcases, nestled side-by-side, offer a rewarding and unique retail experience. Keep your eye on these two companies and their founder, Michelle Vanderlaan: here is where the leading edge in retail lies.


On February 6, 2017, Happy Apple Pie Shop was just one day away from its soft opening at its home at 226 Harrison Street. In the new kitchen, a staff member made pie crust and neighbors paused on the sidewalk to pop their heads in with a welcome to co-owner Michelle Mascaro. While winter sun poured through the big, front windows, Mascaro took a few minutes to sit and talk with me about the opening and her shop’s mission.

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With a focus on Lively Athletics this month, OPEDC pilots its new monthly feature column, Open for Business. Open for Business will profile an Oak Park small business each month to bring you the inside story on the business owners in your community.

On a recent visit to Lively Athletics at 109 N. Oak Park Avenue, I was drawn to the bright children’s obstacle course situated near the children’s shoes. Kids can try on shoes here and skip a hopscotch, do “long jumps” on a mat with colored lines, and hop around on bright, plastic 3-D shapes. Lively co-owner Anne Pezalla told me that she conceived of the obstacle course to help parents shop smarter. When choosing an athletic shoe for their child, they need to select one that serves the child well as they move. The obstacle course gives kids a chance to really test different shoes in the sorts of conditions (playground, for example) in which they’ll be using them.

Lively Athletics co-owners, sister duo Kate Pezalla Marlin and Anne Pezalla, grew up in Oak Park. When they decided to open an athletic store together focused on their shared obsessions—community and running—they never looked anywhere but Oak Park. Anne says, “We grew up here, we love it here, and we’re raising our kids here. The idea of opening anywhere but our hometown didn’t even occur to us.”

Oak Park has been a welcoming home for them. Anne explains that, as a new business, some advised them that they would likely lose money in their first year. Instead, they were in the black. She says, “Our customers care a great deal about shopping local and keeping the dollars they spend in their community.”

Anne says, “My favorite thing about doing business in Oak Park is the small town feel.  I recognize half of our customers from somewhere—maybe my kid’s daycare, or the library, or because they’ve become regulars.”

I asked Anne what advice she has for someone who might be hoping to open a business in Oak Park. She said, “My top piece of advice is to tell your story.  Oak Parkers want to do business with you, the business owner, not a faceless corporation.” She adds, “The best ways we’ve gotten customers in the door is to listen to what they want and give it to them. People want a local store that offers a great fitting process for kids’ shoes? No problem, we added that to our services.” Lively also delivers their products to customers’ homes within Oak Park.

Looking ahead to 2017, Anne says: “We’re really excited about teaming up with Coach Janice Enloe to offer a variety of training programs for local races out of the store.  Parents have been complaining about how hard it is to buy soccer cleats for kids around town, so we’re starting a small used cleat department with our kids’ shoes.  Finally, we keep inching towards becoming a tennis apparel and shoe store, so look for that soon!”

If you haven’t shopped at Lively Athletics yet, 2017 might be a great time to check them out. And if you already know about them, then, chances are, you have become a regular customer. For more information, check


2016 was a year marked by exciting developments in Oak Park. The Oak Park skyline has already welcomed Vantage Oak Park and Elevate Oak Park: Vantage is a 21-story, 270-unit building located at Lake Street and Forest Avenue and Elevate is a 20-story, 271-unit luxury apartment building at the corner of Lake Street and Maple Avenue. District House, a 28-unit condo building on the corner of Euclid and Lake, is under construction. A developer, Jupiter Realty, has recently been selected to revitalize Madison Street through its proposed project, “The Bend.”

New business also grew in 2016. On Oak Park Avenue just south of the Green Line tracks, Citrine offers Mediterranean-influenced cuisine with American flair. Across the street, Spilt Milk Pastry was recently listed in Chicago Magazine’s January Hot List, a top 10 of Chicago eateries.  Hamburger Mary’s and Oak Park Brewing Company offer charity “hambingo,” delicious food and curated brews. Around the corner on South Boulevard, you will find Hit-It Fitness for group exercise and personal training. And just up the street, on northwest corner of Oak Park Avenue and North Boulevard, Yoga Loft has made its home.

On Lake Street between Forest Avenue and Harlem, Target will move into the retail space in Elevate Oak park. Coopers Hawk Winery & Restaurants will move into the ground-level floor of Vantage Oak Park. Spenga fitness studio, specializing in one-hour classes comprised of 20 minutes each of spin, strength training and yoga, will join them, adjacent to Nando’s Peri Peri.

Further east on Lake Street, Saigon Pho moved in after closing its Forest Park location. The Messy Crab, a seafood restaurant with Mexican roots and a full bar, put down roots. Novo, a chef-driven restaurant with a sustainable wine list, occupies the same block. Scratch Kitchen and Lounge, currently in Forest Park and specializing in burgers, fries and mac ‘n’ cheese, opened a new branch this month at 733 Lake Street.

Marion Street became home to La Notte Ristorante Italiano, offering a contemporary twist on old Italian favorites. Q-BBQ packed its Marion Street patio with diners in the warmer months, and 16 Suitcases opened Dec. 10, offering apparel for teens and beyond. JAYNE will open a new store at 122 N. Marion in spring. Nearby on North Boulevard, the boutique Two Story Farmhouse opened its doors offering stylish treasures, many of which support causes, while on South Boulevard, Wild Onion Brewery will be moving in soon.

In the Arts District, Happy Apple Pies, known for its delicious pies and its mixed workforce that includes those with and without disabilities, became the corner tenant in the old La Majada restaurant building at 226 Harrison Street. Finally, Sherwin Williams moved into 901 Madison Street.

”2016 was an incredible year for investment and development in Oak Park,” said John Lynch, Executive Director of OPEDC.  “Developers and business owners are recognizing our Village as the most active market in the western suburbs, and new residents are arriving every day to take advantage of what Oak Park has to offer.  We are only seeing increased interest in Oak Park as we head into 2017.”  For more, visit our website at

Cooper’s Hawk CEO Tim McEnery, right, and his father, Leonard.


Cooper’s Hawk coming to Oak Park featured in Crain’s Chicago Business


Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant plans to move into the entire ground floor of a new luxury apartment building near Oak Park’s downtown.

The Countryside-based restaurant and winery chain, which now has more than 20 locations, including seven in suburban Chicago, signed a long-term lease for the space at 150 N. Forest Ave., where it will operate a restaurant, bar, tasting room, “artisan market” and a private events space. It also will have outdoor dining.

While it wasn’t immediately clear how large the restaurant will be, previous advertisements for the property peg the first-floor retail space at about 12,500 square feet. The typical Cooper’s Hawk restaurant seats about 300 people and has a Cheesecake Factory-like feeling. Menus skew toward American staples, such as burgers, flatbreads, grilled meats and entree salads.

Each restaurant grosses north of $8 million per year. Cooper’s Hawk, which makes its wine in Countryside from grapes grown in California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Michigan, also has one of the largest—if not the largest—wine clubs in the United States with more than 163,000 members as of December.

Its upcoming Oak Park location will be the anchor retail tenant of a new $90 million 21-story, 270-unit building developed by Golub & Co. and Wood Partners. Known as Vantage Oak Park, the apartment building also will have an immediate care center and medical offices for Edward-Elmhurst Health, which will occupy the building’s second floor.

News that Cooper’s Hawk will move into the near-west suburb comes a day after it lost one of its flagship restaurants. Marion Street Market, a 12-year-old restaurant and market at 100 S. Marion St., closed abruptly Sept. 4. The restaurant, which recently underwent some $500,000 in renovations, was recognized in the past by Michelin as a good value.

Oak Park adding high-rise rental buildings

“Oak Park is adding high-rise luxury rental apartment buildings to its downtown as it seeks to capture millennials and empty nesters who have been drawn to newly built skyscrapers popular in Chicago.

The village changed height limits to allow for the construction of high-rise housing.

The goal is a vibrant downtown, said John Lynch, executive director of the Oak Park Economic Development Corp. That comes, he said, from more people living downtown along with more restaurants and activities.”

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Escape Factor Chicago Opens as Oak Park’s First Escape Room

Oak Park’s newest business concept, Escape Factor Chicago, encourages community members and visitors to check out its new escape room located at 711 South Boulevard in the Village’s Hemingway District.

Escape Factor Chicago provides a unique 60-minute experience that allows a group of up to 10 participants explore a room filled with puzzles, riddles, and cryptic messages. The goal is to have participants work together in order to solve all of the puzzles before time runs out.
As popularity in escape rooms continues to grow across the U.S., co-owners Jonathan Biag and Dexter Cura knew it was the perfect time to introduce the concept to Oak Park. In May, Escape Factor opened its doors to provide the community with a new way to spend quality time with friends, family, or coworkers.
“When is the last time you’ve spent 60 minutes with your friends without the distraction of your electronic device?” said Jonathan Biag. “We are excited to provide such a fun family-friendly, one-of-a-kind experience in this community.”
At $32 dollars a person, Escape Room Chicago currently offers customers the opportunity to think outside the box and explore its “Timekeeper’s Trap” room, which has a 20 percent success rate.
“The puzzles in the room are intended to be hard in order to encourage people to rely on logic and teamwork to get through them,” said Dexter Cura. “It’s quite interesting to see how our customers navigate the room when they are working against time and traditional reasoning.”
Cura and Biag are working toward opening a second room by fall 2016 to provide an alternative option for those who wish to come back and enjoy a different set of puzzles, riddles and brain teasers.
Escape Factor Chicago is open from 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, by appointment only. The escape room is perfect for corporate events, birthday parties, or with a group of family and friends.
To learn more about Escape Factor Chicago or to schedule your next group event, visit, email, or call 708-94-ESCAPE.