Women Who MAKE: Spinning J Bakery and Soda Fountain

I’m really excited about this month’s WWM feature friends. Mostly because it involves ice cream, pie and cookies!!! Okay, while that is partially true (this was our most well-fed interview to date) it’s also because Dinah is extremely hard working, passionate and inspiring. Dinah and her husband Parker have done incredible things to the interior of their restaurant, not to mention what they serve is so darn tasty!

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Here’s a little backstory: I have always had a soft spot in my heart for old fashioned soda fountains. My first job in high school was working behind a soda fountain mixing up milkshakes and selling lotto tickets. When my husband and I saw a this new shop, Spinning J Chicago Bakery and Soda Fountain, we checked it out right away. We were blown away when we met a charming young couple, who we learned had renovated the entire interior and created the tasty menu. I was especially touched when Dinah explained that name of the restaurant was a reference to her grandmother and the spinning helicopter leaves we all played with as children. Dinah hand stenciled this leaf motif onto the restaurant walls, and wears a necklace with the same resemblance. I knew I had to interview Dinah for the series and show off the amazing handy work at Spinning J. Enjoy the interview! All photography by Carolina Mariana. P.S. Next week I’ll share one of Dinah’s awesome recipes for biscotti, which can also play double duty as a pie crust!

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Women Who MAKE Interview – Spinning J Chicago Bakery and Soda Fountain

Name: Dinah Grossman

Age: 31

Current title/company name: Co-Owner, Spinning J Bakery and Soda Fountain

Years in operation: Less than one.

What is your first memory of making [art]/being creative/baking or cooking?

I used to love to draw. When I was about four or five I made a drawing that my parents sent to my favorite illustrator and children’s book author, Vera B. Williams. She sent back a thank you note and some original drawings of her own. I still have them. It was very exciting at the time, and looking back at it now, amazing that she took the time and effort to respond in such a personal way.

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How did your education or past work experience give you the confidence to go out on your own as a small business owner?

I ran Cheap Tart Bakery for about four years before we opened Spinning J. It was a delivery only baking business that we operated out of Kitchen Chicago. We had no retail component, but I learned a lot about what I wanted during that time, and realized that having more interactions with people and the community was important to me. My husband (then boyfriend) worked incredibly hard at that business too, all the while working his own job. I think being partners in that business gave us both the confidence we needed to open Spinning J, knowing we were doing it together. I had always wanted a partner to share this experience with, and Parker’s expertise and support have been crucial every step of the way.

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Tell us about the process of launching the restaurant. Best parts? Biggest challenge?

It was a very long process! Of course we knew it would be a challenge, but I don’t think either of us were prepared for some of the emotional challenges of dealing with contractors along the way. In the end, we learned such an enormous amount as we went, before we ever opened our doors. We did a lot of the finish work ourselves, and had some help from talented friends. I was sort of forced to learn about a lot of things I’d never done before — using power tools, refinishing woodwork, restoring antiques, upholstering, the electrical system in our old building, and on and on. Parker has a great attitude about learning to do new things, and is fearless about starting new projects, so he was a great influence. He’s also the handiest person I know, so as far as a partner in this project I couldn’t have dreamed up anyone better.

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I know you and your husband did a lot of the interior design work yourselves. Can you tell us about some of the design elements, found objects, and/or overall vision for the interior?

We’re both really proud of the floor. At one time we had considered opening a cement tile company, so we purchased a lot of tile equipment from a defunct factory in Argentina. We ended up with probably close to 100 of these vintage tile molds from the 1920’s just sitting in our garage. They have beautiful Art Deco designs, each one is different. Someone suggested that we use them as stencils, and so we ended up using them to stencil our floor, which underneath is just very beat up vinyl tile. It was incredibly labor intensive, but we love how it turned out.

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Because our beautiful antique soda fountain bar was built in 1928, and because it’s so meaningful to us as the place where my grandmother used to sit, we used that as the central item around which the rest of the design was created. We wanted to evoke the feeling of a 1920’s or 1930’s soda fountain, so we chose dark wood, a lot of glass and brass, and researched color palettes from that era when we were choosing our paint colors. But we also weren’t trying to perfectly recreate a relic, so we chose to incorporate some more contemporary touches and to repurpose and recycle objects we liked or found interesting even if they weren’t antiques.

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In the end we chose colors, materials, and objects that spoke to us, and things that were affordable for us. We completed the entire project on a shoestring budget, so we used donated and found materials whenever possible, and scoured estate sales, eBay, and Craigslist for raw materials and antiques.

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What is your favorite part of the creative process? What inspires you and why?

I’ve always loved making things with my hands, and the very satisfying feeling of getting to enjoy the finished product knowing what went into making it from the beginning. I’m inspired by antiques and vintage pieces, everyday objects with a story behind them. Even if the provenance of a thing is a mystery, a plate that’s existed for 50 or 100 years and survived intact fascinates me. I’m inspired by our wonderful customers, and their questions and suggestions which help me to improve what we do at Spinning J. And I’m inspired by my husband whose ideas are so many and so unique. He’s taught me not to be afraid to try to make an idea a reality, and I love watching him experiment and build things that would never have occurred to me to invent. 

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What is the best advice you have for other female entrepreneurs?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice. Ask your friends and family, ask business owners and experts, and ask strangers. And do something outside of your comfort zone that’s unrelated to your business. While we were opening Spinning J my sister gave me the gift of an improv course at Second City. Not only was it a great outlet and release during a stressful time, but it was also a way of unlocking a very different part of my brain than the one being used in planning the business. I met people who I wouldn’t have met any other way and who became a support system to me and could see me in the context of something other than my work, which I think is important.

Do you have a design/baking/cooking philosophy, and if so, what is it?

We don’t want to present anything to the public that we’re not proud of and that goes for everything from the plates and glasses to the walls to the food. Do something you can be proud of, I guess is the philosophy, which isn’t exactly earth-shattering but it is the strongest foundation I can think of on which to build.

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Imagine your business in five years. How would you like to grow?

We’d like to be able to offer some of the products we make to people outside of the Spinning J retail location–our syrups and bitters are really special, so we’d like to expand our production and distribution of those. We’ve got lots of fun things in the works, but I think what’s most important to me is that in five years we are an even more important and useful part of our community. I see families come into Spinning J with newborns, and I think how much fun it will be to watch them grow up with us, and how privileged we are to get to be a part of their childhood. And I love that we’re a safe place for the local high school kids, and that people come in on first dates, and 50th dates, and I look forward to being a part of people’s lives in that way. That’s growth to me, to become a part of peoples’ memories.

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What are your most popular menu items?

Apple pie, key lime hibiscus pie, espresso meringue pie, blueberry scones, chocolate chip cookies, blue cheese biscuits, grilled cheese and tomato soup, quiche, lattes with our homemade syrups, and root beer, cola, and milkshakes!

spinning j chicago What do you enjoy most about the creative community here in Chicago?

There are so many interesting and creative people in Chicago and Humboldt Park. And the best part is how little pretension there is. People here want to share their art with other people, and they want you to share your art with them. It’s a very mutually supportive place.

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Centered By Design is my business name, but it’s also the idea that we can find a bit of sanctuary each day through our creative process, that good design can center us and make us feel great. Does your creative process center you in any way? If so, how? 

Going back to the idea that we should be proud of what we create, that centers me. Remembering that it is better to do one thing well than ten things poorly helps me to take on only what I believe I can do well, though I need to remind myself all the time of that. 

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Dinah’s Chicago Favorites:

Favorite spot to get inspired: Humboldt Park

Favorite florist: Fleur and Adams and Sons

Favorite place to shop for home décor/furniture/thrift: I’m an estate sale junkie, but I also covet the beautiful tapestries and home goods at Humboldt House.

Favorite place for coffee: It’s hard to beat the lattes at Spinning J, but if I ever go elsewhere I love Big Shoulders on Chicago Ave and La Colombe’s Wicker Park cafe.

Favorite place for a sweet treat: Floriole’s pastries are just lovely.

You can keep up with all the good things at Spinning J Chicago – HERE

Thank you Dinah for sharing part of your story with us! As always, stay tuned for an all new Women Who MAKE in May.

XO – CLAIRE