Jennifer Kim is a Chicago chef who operates outside the traditional bounds of her profession. Her project, Alt Economy, rethinks how meals are made and sold, aiming to avoid the traditional restaurant industry’s exploitative policies that have historically been especially harmful to immigrants and people of color.
As the ongoing pandemic forces restaurants to evolve, Kim’s venture provides a space for exploring safer and more equitable practices within the context of hospitality. She conceptualized Alt Economy in September of 2020 after having to close her critically acclaimed Korean-Italian restaurant, Passerotto, in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. The project began, in her words, as a “virtual house for underground economies, artists, and microbusinesses that couldn’t afford or access their own websites and ordering platforms.”
Since then, Alt Economy has broadened its scope, offering financial tool kits for entrepreneurs and initiating numerous collaborations that emphasize the connections among food, social justice, and art.
A case in point was last February’s “Neon Surreal Valentine” project, for which Alt Economy partnered with Chicago-based microbusinesses Immortal Milk, Juanita’s Bebidas, Exfolia Botanical, and Zed. Together the participants first pondered what sensory experiences they wanted for their “guests,” then came up with a boxed kit that purchasers could use to create a Valentine’s Day celebration at home.
The finished product consisted of a box that cost $149 and served two to three people. The box could either be picked up at Hopewell Brewery (a local craft brewery) or delivered for an additional $10 fee within Chicago city limits. In addition to the 20 boxes that were sold, 5 boxes were made for each collaborator and one was donated to Hopewell Brewery.
While restaurant industry knowledge and experience was their common connection, the collaborators brought a variety of talents to the project. Each box contained a satiating cheese and charcuterie bento box conceived by Kim and Alisha Norris Jones of Immortal Milk, a loaf of bread from Lounge Bread, a sensual yamamomo (candied bayberry) and white ganache dessert from Zed’s Zed Everhart, and a distinctive milk punch cocktail with pineapple rum and soju created by Roshelley Mayen of Juanita’s Bebidas.
In addition to food and drink, purchasers received a baby bouquet by Cassie Stadnicki of Exfolia Botanical, a dynamic playlist by Jones, a handmade Valentine card by Mayen, and a menu and guide explaining how to enjoy the Neon Surreal experience. Guests had the option of ordering add-ons such as an upgraded bouquet (+$36), an additional bread loaf (+$12), and a Blakesville Creamery Sakura-leaf goat cheese (+$15). “We facilitated the tools for folks to finish the loop we had started by creating their own immersive experiences in their homes,” Kim says.
Covid-19 limited in-person interactions between the collaborators, who communicated through email or text until two weeks before the pickup day. At that point there was a one-time group meeting in a large warehouse to style and photograph the food.
The how-to guide notified guests that the collaborators would be enjoying their meals separately at 7 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, so if guests wanted to experience that togetherness remotely, they could also eat at that hour and then share their experiences on Instagram via stories, posts, tags, and direct messaging. The collaborators chose not to arrange a communal dinner via video because of the Zoom fatigue that had taken hold by February of 2021. Additionally, says Kim, “so much intimacy gets lost when you’re eating dinner via video conference; you’re so busy looking at 20 little squares that the connection with the people in the room with you is muddled.” Instead, participants could keep their distance while still being connected through identical boxes of goods.
Says Kim, “It was cool to think that somewhere out there, someone was listening to the same playlist and eating the same meal but having their own experience as well.”
Alt Economy continues to adapt to the times. Last summer it expanded its horizons beyond Chicago, collaborating with mutual aid communities in the Midwest and South during a 30-day summer tour. The tour supported and celebrated alternative economies led by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and femme groups in cities like Detroit and New Orleans while raising funds for aid organizations in each city. “Every collaboration has a different process dictated by the group of folks that have come together in an authentic way,” says Kim. “That’s one of the most exciting aspects of this type of work: the ability to be fluid and honest.”
An upcoming three-night pop-up, Bistrot Futura, will be held November 19–21 at Dorian’s, a cocktail bar and record shop in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. For this four-course seated dinner (with vegan option) inspired by Eastern European bistro cuisine, Alt Economy will be collaborating with Vargo Brother Ferments and Rye Humor Baking, two small businesses that emerged during the pandemic. (Tickets are sold out, but there is a waiting list.)
Kim believes that pivots like the one she made in creating community-based events will always be necessary as people look for different ways to connect with food. She plans to continue Alt Economy as part of a broader movement toward a more humane and ethical hospitality industry.