Anticipating what would be asked of her, Susan Trieschmann was confident that her answer would be no. The businesswoman had her hands full as the executive director of the nonprofit Curt’s Café, a restaurant in north Evanston that provides a daily stipend, life skills training, and job placement for at-risk young adults, mostly boys. Susan couldn’t imagine trying to run another café, but she agreed to meet with Nancy Floy anyway.
Nancy is president of Heartwood Center, a small-business incubator for holistic health care providers, and she leads the Evanston West Village Business Association. But Nancy is not your typical businesswoman. An acupuncturist, meditation teacher, and yoga practitioner, Nancy has a vision to transform the economically struggling Dempster/Dodge area of Evanston into a corridor of healing.
As Susan discovered, Nancy’s unique combination of spiritual grounding and business acumen can be a powerful force for change. During their meeting, Nancy urged Susan to consider taking over a café that was for sale just across the street from Heartwood. As they talked, Susan remembered some research she had recently done into the challenges faced by teen mothers.
“Halfway through the conversation, I turned on a dime. I said, ‘What about girls?’ Nancy just brought out that energy. I couldn’t stop myself, ” Susan recalled. So, Curt’s Café South, which will train young moms and other at-risk girls, was born.
Curt’s Café South will open this month and is the most recent of many efforts spearheaded by Nancy to help revitalize this area. Dempster/Dodge is the major corridor for traffic from I-94 into Evanston and a significant route to and from Chicago’s north side. There was a time when this western edge of Evanston was a vital part of the city’s economy. But financial downturns, coupled with store openings to the south and east, caused several area businesses to close. Last year, Dominick’s shuttered its store in the Evanston Plaza, leaving a vast empty parking lot.
In 2010, when Nancy purchased the foreclosed 12, 000-square-foot building near the intersection of Dempster and Dodge using some of her own retirement money, bullet holes riddled the facade. The area, which is also where Nancy owns her home, was seen as something of a black hole, she said. As soon as renovations were completed on the Heartwood building, they worked on creating a garden to beautify the outside.
“We made sure, on our sign out front, to have the words yoga, tai chi, meditation. We received so many calls from people who would drive by and say they felt calmer just seeing the sign.”
Today, Heartwood provides office and classroom space to 50 health care practitioners and instructors. Along with fee-based services, many of the practitioners offer pro bono support for trauma survivors, cancer patients, and others who cannot afford services. Nancy expects to get a state grant that will help fund the purchase of a house next to Heartwood. The house will be used by the Tsogayling Meditation Center to accommodate visiting teachers and provide mindfulness training for the girls working at Curt’s Café South.
“I love business, ” she said, “but business with a heart and a conscious. We all need to make enough money, but in addition to supporting yourself, it’s about thinking, ‘How can I help others?’”
Nancy’s passion for revitalizing the Dempster/Dodge area has caught on. Two years ago, the city of Evanston provided a $100, 000 loan to her to create the Skylight Event Space within the Heartwood Center, which hosts parties, concerts, and other events. She was also able to purchase a small lot that provides free parking for Dodge Avenue businesses.
Those who know her understand that when Nancy is inspired, she does not hesitate to act. She and Susan hatched the plan for Curt’s Café South just last summer. In the span of just a few months, Nancy and other volunteers launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise the initial $50, 000 needed to purchase the former Perla Café on Dodge Avenue. A single donor, who uses the services at Heartwood, provided $10, 000.
“It was incredible, ” Nancy said. “People all over Evanston donated, but mostly in our neighborhood.”
By December fresh yellow paint covered the café walls, a new cold press juicer was installed in the kitchen, and there was a growing waiting list of girls interested in participating. Patrons will, as Susan describes it, “dine with a purpose.” The café will offer freshly brewed coffee, salads, and sandwiches made from high-quality ingredients and a warm environment in which diners can eat and relax, and young women trainees can work and learn.
Young women who apprentice there will receive not just training in working in the service industry but also help with life skills, such as personal budget management and parenting. At the original café, volunteers have tutored participants on earning a GED, improving writing skills, and expressing themselves through art. A full-time social worker will be on hand at the new café to help the young women navigate everything from child care dilemmas to job applications.
The goal is to have participants placed in jobs within three months, Susan said, but the café will always be a source of support for them.
“We counsel all day long and hear stories that can be really hard to navigate. Some of these kids are holding problems I don’t think I could hold, ” she said. “But we feed them, we love them, we respect them. It’s what we’ve got.”
That kind of business—one that keeps community values and needs in mind—is exactly what community leaders like Alderman Peter Braithwaite want to see in the area, and he appreciates Nancy’s efforts.