Student Stories

GastroConference serves up insight

The first-ever Chicago GastroConference, held by EnvisionDo on April 13, brought a medley of chefs, restaurateurs, nonprofit organizers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and students, all united by one thing: their love for food.

Sandwiched between a continental breakfast and a dessert reception was a day at Ida Noyes jam-packed with panels and keynote speeches from such luminaries of the food industry as Barry Nalebuff, co-founder of Honest Tea, and Justin Massa, founder of the menu database Food Genius.

As an RSO that aims to foster creative entrepreneurship on campus, EnvisionDo began cooking up the GastroConference in Fall Quarter. "Our mission this year was to expose UChicago students to businesses that are innovative and entrepreneurial and outside of conventional (for UChicago) finance and consulting," said second-year Justin Manley, an executive board member of EnvisionDo who is double-majoring in Math and Computer Science.

This six-month planning process included contacting a long list of potential speakers--sometimes with the help of connections from Career Advancement and the Booth School of Business, but often through cold emails. The team initially worried that the conference would not garner enough interest from either speakers or students, but the event met with such enthusiasm that tickets were sold out.

"The whole thing was brainstormed, planned, and executed in a matter of months, which I count as both a personal feat for our team and a testament to the intense work that RSOs are doing every day," said second-year Megan Matte, EnvisionDo executive board member and Economics major.

Photo by Vida Kuang, Class of 2013

In line with their goal of presenting new, offbeat ideas, the EnvisionDo board conceived of the GastroConference as an event that would introduce the UChicago community to the burgeoning food industry. But why food?

For Sibei Mi, president of EnvisionDo and a fourth-year French Literature major, it was a natural choice: "I am a huge foodie, and my friends and I are always going to restaurants in Chicago, so we already had a good idea of who we wanted to contact," she said. Manley cited the timeliness of the topic: "There's a lot of innovation going on in the food industry in Chicago right now, so it seemed like the perfect area for us to focus on."

To that end, each panel session offered conference attendees a taste of a different aspect of the food industry. One panel addressed the challenges of restaurant ownership—seasoned restaurateurs such as Donnie Madia, of One Off Hospitality, and Iliana Regan, of Elizabeth Restaurant, discussed restaurant real estate, finding the right investors, and striking a balance between quality and cost. Another panel, “Food and the Social Good,” brought in nonprofit organizers and entrepreneurs for a spirited discussion on obesity, access to food, and the politics behind food policy.

With two panels dedicated to entrepreneurship in the food industry, along with two keynote speeches from successful innovators, "innovation" was the watchword of the day. In his keynote address, for example, Barry Nalebuff explained how he leveraged economic theory to capitalize on a gap in the beverage market; Justin Massa, during his own speech, explained how his data-focused start-up goes against the grain of conventional food trend prediction methods.

Photo by Vida Kuang, Class of 2013

Even the food served at the conference reflected the spirit of innovation, featuring offerings from some of the very entrepreneurs on the panels: Teresa Ging, AB'00, of Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, and Alex Abbott Boyd, AB'11, of Cocktail Crate.

Though each speaker brought something different to the table, every one of them shared an all-consuming passion for food: "We have the best lives," said Christine Cikowski, co-founder of the underground restaurant Sunday Dinner Club. "What drives us on a daily basis is [that] we love serving people."

Beyond the panels and speeches, however, the heart of the GastroConference lay in casual conversations between people with similar passions. Students and speakers alike took advantage of the opportunity to share ideas, contact information, and job opportunities--and during the post-conference networking session, panelists could be seen engrossed in excited conversations about food access and education.

Like the restaurateurs on the panels, EnvisionDo's GastroConference crafted an experience for its guests. It brought together a diverse group of people in an engaging, convivial atmosphere, creating community in the same way a shared meal does.

For highlights and videos of the two keynote addresses, check out UChicago Career Advancement’s YouTube channel.