The East St. Louis Cafe of Champions Challenge provides opportunity for local businesses amid COVID-19

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The East St. Louis Cafe of Champions Challenge is giving local restaurants and catering companies the chance to compete for financial prizes, as well as the grand prize of a rent-free, utility-free space in the East St. Louis Higher Education Center. 


The SIUE East St. Louis Center is teaming up with the Small Business Development Center for the challenge.  

Tiffany Caguitla, associate director for the East St. Louis Center, said while the ESLC normally chooses the cafe vendor through a contractor process, this year, they wanted to create opportunities for small businesses impacted by COVID-19. 


“We partnered with the Small Business Development Center because a lot of times, cooks are great at being cooks, and they have great recipes and the food tastes great, but we wanted to partner those businesses with a mentor, so that way they can successfully create a business plan and become more competitive,” Caguitla said. 


Alexandria Vlahos, program coordinator for the SIUE Learning Resource Center on the East St. Louis Higher Education campus, said the most exciting part for her is how the prizes could save businesses. 


“Right now, with COVID hitting the restaurant business extra hard, to have those big expenses taken care of can make or break a new business or one just starting out,” Vlahos said. 


Jo Ann DiMaggio May, director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center for the Metro East at SIU, said the contest is intended to benefit the East St. Louis community as well. 


“I think it’s going to bring a lot of exposure and excitement and economic impact. That revenue that the business brings in hopefully stays in the community and they spend their money at other local businesses, and their patrons will come and support them and vice versa. It’ll be a community effort and really help grow the area,” DiMaggio May said. 


Caguitla, who initiated the idea, said she partnered with the Small Business Development Center due to their previous experience in pitch contests, like the Cafe of Champions Challenge.  


“We wanted to find a vendor for that space, but not just any vendor, a vendor that is up-and-coming and preferably somebody who is affiliated with the area that we support on the campus: East St. Louis, Cahokia, Madison, St. Clair County,” Caguitla said. “So I already got the idea started, started generating some steps we would need to start a pitch contest, started Google searching pitch contests and then I found the Small Business Development Center hosted a pitch contest in October.” 


DiMaggio May said because the Small Business Development Center is going on its eighth year of hosting pitch contests, they have a lot of resources and contacts to make sure businesses succeed. 


“Helping in the effort to have mentors, and have a good business plan, and making sure that they have these external partners that they can lean on really is important,” DiMaggio May said. “I’d probably say out of the winners that we’ve had over 80 percent, probably close to 85 percent or more, [that] have stayed in operation.”


Vlahos said the contest will be structured as a tiered system. 


“The first part is that [businesses] are supposed to apply. And then, provided that all of the application materials are successful and they meet all of those criteria, they move on to the next session. So they will be reviewed by … judges and reviewers. The reviewers will go through and look at their business plan, and so by the time they make it to the judging part, that will be more of the tasting and the presentation,” Vlahos said. 


DiMaggio May said the judging portion will be conducted by five recognized figures in the East St. Louis community, and a taste testing will occur. 


“We’re probably looking at presentation, taste, just the overall look and comfort level and … the appeal of that plate and the mainstream opportunity with what they’re presenting,” DiMaggio May said. 


DiMaggio May said the first, second and third place winners will receive $2,000, $1,500 and $1,000 respectively. The first-place winner will also be able to use the space rent-free and utility-free for a year. 


“[The prizes were] just based on the support that we were able to garner, as far as financial support from some partners and then the East St. Louis foundation as well. So we just were able to get $4,500 to put in the pot, plus the rent-free [space] for a year,” DiMaggio May said. 


Vlahos said she is excited to see what will happen. 


“This is the first time we’re offering this, and I’ve really been encouraged by the number of applicants we already have, and it doesn’t even close until April 3,” Vlahos said. “We’ve also been getting a lot of questions sent about the process, about the application, about just everything. I really think that it’s drumming up interest.” 


Businesses can fill out the online application to enter the contest before the deadline of April 3. The grand prize winner will be announced June 10. 


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