VIDEO: Interview with Alex Curatolo of Belli's Juice
Updated: Oct 28, 2021
How did they get started?
I just wanted to ask you, how did you come upon choosing that location and what were you doing before you started Belli’s?
Sure. I chose Pilsen, I mean it is pretty simple, I lived here (in Pilsen) at that time so it seemed like demand and a need in the community. Since I was a part of the community, I was just like oh well, we really need something healthy here.
Before that, I was doing a lot of different things. One of the things was, I was in grad school, so I was kind of studying local food, community development and I was really interested in public health actually.
I was in my first year of getting my master's and then I was also managing the farmers market in the neighborhood. So, I was really into it, I was one of those foodies. I guess one of those plant-based vegan foodie health freaks but I really enjoy, food and nutrition and all that stuff.
I decided to drop out of grad school because it just was not doing, it was not enough for me. I was doing too much research and I really wanted to do something, so I decided to kind of take what I knew from there and just from my past and from living here and just made a business plan, probably too quickly, and opened it up.
There are a lot of details there that I want to unpack but, one thing that you mentioned at the very beginning was that you lived in the community before you started Belli’s, and that is something that is come up a lot, was a community-oriented business. I do not know if you know 8A5E cafe and Bridgeport but…
It is a pretty cool spot. They offer tech assistance as well as like coffee and like coffee shop type food sandwiches and salads and things like that.
And also they do art galleries or art shows so yeah. He mentioned too like he wanted to create a space that really brought the community together. Entrepreneurs in the area or all around Chicago to get that tech assistance that a lot of them want to need.
So, it sounds like your business is community-driven too and you mentioned that you can eat a healthy spot in the neighborhood.
My question is how did the community respond? Like since this was kind of a new thing, you said once you started it. Yeah. How did they respond? How did you educate them on the benefits of a healthy juice bar like Belli’s?
Sure. So, I was kind of in a unique position. I do not want to say, not unique, but I was in a good position in the sense that before Belli’s I was doing community work.
I was doing community gardening, so I had networked with so many different people from the neighborhood, in the neighborhood, and that in a sense one, helped me with customers, and then it also… hello! It is just kind of how I knew that we had that demand.
People were starting to really become more health-conscious, more interested in farmer's markets like people. All different types of people from the neighborhood were going to the community market and checking out the vegetables and that atmosphere.
It was definitely something that I saw, I was like okay people want this, I want this, I am traveling outside of the neighborhood, I am sure other people are traveling outside the neighborhood. It is such an… especially the farmers market, seeing people connect around food in itself is such like a… it is such a nice community feel to it.
So, yeah I do not know if that answered your question.
Did you have previous experience in entrepreneurship or starting and/or running a business?
No definitely not. No so, I actually had a conversation about this today with somebody at my yoga class and she is about twice my age and she was telling me, “Wow! You opened that when you were so young that must be great to be an entrepreneur.”
I was like well, I think I was just really naive and I was, just like for me there is no such thing as fear. It is just like until you get there and then you are like oh my god what am I doing and then it really hits you, so, as far as, sorry I did not even… what was the question?
Challenges in starting the business
I think you were going down the right track like what were the challenges I mean…
Alright, challenges yeah. So, I did not think, I was kind of just like oh, this is going to be great, and then it really hit me and we opened up in the dead of winter which is the worst time I think to open up.
Well, it was October, so right before winter hit and it was a pretty bad winter for Chicago. So, I was not prepared and I guess one of my biggest pieces of advice is always to make sure you have your finances in place.
Make sure you have that business plan and those finances in place because I think I was a little bit too lax on that and I think that is very important.
Just to really have a financial plan for at least the first year and make sure you are hitting your targets because, if you do not, there is always something unexpected happening whether it is winter or a pandemic or relocation or whatever that is.
There is always something that you got to kind of plan for so having that safety net of money is huge.
Right on. Yeah. I mean for sure and even what you said is a little more prudent than what I have heard from some past restaurant owners.
They always say something like three to six months have that planned out or like plan on not making any money for up to that amount of time.
So, a year is definitely pretty prudent. It sounds like you learned that the hard way. What did you do to, once you realize like, maybe I am being a little too lax? What did you do to kind of put you back on the right path?
Leveraging funding resources
Well, somebody that put me on the right path, it was not me, I had a friend who kind of just reached out and he was a financial advisor and he really helped me get my finances in place.
He helped me get a grant for my business, which really helped me because I did not have the money that I needed, and so that was probably after year one.
I was so sure, once I was hitting that one-year mark, I was like I am not going to make it, I am going to have to close after this year, and I kind of accepted it and then I ended up getting this grant out of nowhere.
And it was mainly due to my friend who helped me financially and I got the grants and I was like all right let us make this happen so yeah I stuck.
Nice! And how long have you been in business now?
Seven years and three months.
Nice! Congrats! It would have been a bit of shame if you went out of business after year one.
Who knows what you have been doing for the next six years after that. So, yeah definitely congrats on that, and in those seven years what has surprised you the most? I mean obviously financial planning is one thing but what are the things that you look back and you are just like, man how did I never think that would happen while I owned my business.
That is a good question. I think every year it is a different year and it is always a surprise and like I said there are always things you do not plan for good and bad and for me being able to fulfill our mission.
The first year was like we are not going to make it and then we ended up making it and then we sustain ourselves after the second year and I was like oh god this is great! I can have a day off you know and then I get more staff and being able to have a full staff with full-timers and not having to be here 24/7.
So, I think every year we’ve grown, it really, we have just every year, we have continued to grow and that is great.
I think that every year, it is just something new, and being able to kind of fulfill our mission as a business and also sustain ourselves is just great. It is a nice feeling to be able to do both so.
Advice for new entrepreneurs
Very cool. That is awesome!
What is some advice you would give to other entrepreneurs that don’t get shared enough?
Take time for yourself, especially being into holistic health it is huge and so, I think that is huge that is helped me a lot, being able to step away the first year.
Just being able to take care of yourself, the first year was really tough and I did not have any days off and it was 24/7 basically, 12 hour days.
So, once I was got through that hurdle and I was able to realize oh my gosh if only I just took a day off like there is a lot of places now, where they are not open seven days and I really should have considered that I thought it was just grinding and then at some point, it was like oh my god, I need to take a step back.
That is something I would have done differently, is really made sure to commit to myself personally, and then also a huge thing I do know is I plan everything.
So, I try to really look at the next three months and be like okay this is how this is going to be. I need to make sure, I save money because it is winter and we got to get through winter, I need to make sure, we are ready for the summer, we got to have this and this.
Planning is huge and really, you do not necessarily when you are first starting even have the opportunity to because you are just so here but once you get to that point we are able to look up and see. Three to six months later you are like okay this is where I need to be here and here so that is kind of what I do now.
All the time and I love talking about it which is why when I saw this I was like oh this would be cool because I love talking about it. I am actually writing a small, I do not know a book basically to kind of go over stuff, I do not know, we will see.
But, it is COVID time and I do have a lot more time than usual, so I figured why not work some more and write a book and one of the things that I mentioned is really deciding. I think a lot of people just kind of go into it, nowadays like oh entrepreneur and it is so romanticized that the people think oh this is going to be great.
I am going to be able to live my passion, and I think people do not really consider it a lot and one of the things I always say is are you able to open a business right now?
Not even just financially but whenever a business closes, I always ask well what happened, kind of already guessing either a partnership happened so, two people decided, they just wanted to jump into business, and then a partial partnership failed or somebody had a baby that happens all the time.
Somebody opens a business they have babies and then for some reason they like, okay and it is a privilege to be able to do that anyway and just say okay and walk away. But, it is a huge sacrifice and a huge commitment and I think a lot of times people just do not think that it will be.
You do not always get a paycheck. So, I always say, “Are you sure, this is something you want to do?”
And yeah I mean that is the biggest thing and then I talk about boring stuff like finances, which is also really important.
And yeah you mentioned it, you mentioned a couple of times finances. You mentioned that your friend helped you secure a grant that helped you get through that first year, and so that is an important part that is starting a business right, securing financing.
How did you get funds other than the grant? How did you go about finding the funds to start Belli’s?
So, as I said I was very naive and I thought I would start a kick starter and I thought oh this will be great and I think I said it for… I think I said it for 15… 10 or 15 which is not enough to ever start a business ever. At least not brick and mortar, but not in general.
I do not think you can really, you got to have more financing than that and I really only got eight thousand out of it, so I thought oh this is great, I got a couple of months to rent, I will make it work, this would be great. So it did not work out that way.
I ended up finding some private, I do not want to say investors, but friends that helped me through and I ended up paying them back throughout the years.
So, however you have to do it you have to find, I could not, unfortunately, go to a bank because my credit was not great at that point, so they would not give me a loan, so I had to do it through people I knew. Luckily I knew people who kind of believed in me and believed in the concept of Belli’s and so they were into it and they wanted to help.
I was able to finance that way and then the grant did not even come until the end of the first year. So, then that kind of helped into the second year really, just with mainly equipment and stuff like that. So, yeah I think, you have to somehow secure money.
For sure. Yeah. You got to get creative in opening one door; and you got to find that next open one, right?
I guess I would just really quickly mention I do not recommend. Well, I do not personally recommend the kick starters but that is, I do not think it really helped us too much, it was great. I mean it did help a little bit but there is other ways to financially secure money.
What are your goals moving forward? You have done seven years at this point, are you trying to expand to another location or more products within Belli’s?
Or maybe you just keep on doing what you are doing? I mean you are good at it obviously, so what are your goals for the business moving forward?
I think that those change every year for me and like I said, always planning for the worst.
I wanted to relocate, I am sorry the first time I wanted to grow the business, we had to, we ended up having to relocate. So, every time we have tried to grow with another location which is pretty much the way to grow for my industry and my business.
You need a second location, so we have tried and then I tried. Again last year when I almost signed a lease for a second location in West Town and then the pandemic hit, so I have tried twice to grow and I am not sure yet if I am going to continue trying. That mainly had to do with the pandemic.
I am waiting for it to kind of play out and see where life is after the pandemic and how things change because I do think our industry will change. So, right now the main plan really is to just make it through the pandemic and then from there, we might grow we might consolidate.
So I am going to just leave it at that for now and wait for this pandemic to unfold.
For sure. I mean there is no shame in that. I think that is the name of the game for a lot of people, right?
Right. Yeah and you can plan and then that is what business has taught me is like you can continue to plan to grow and this and that and something is going to happen, so sometimes it is the pandemic has really just showed me, maybe it is time to just consolidate a little bit.
For sure and the second last question is about connectivity.
So, social media is our way of connecting to our customers and so that is my main way of using, I guess app that we use, Instagram, Facebook but mainly Instagram and, so we also… I pretty much do all the Instagram at this point, so I edit the photos and I have one other app that it does like this nice, it is a free app that adds like the lettering and stuff like that. So, I do not know if you want me to tell you the name of it.
What is it called?
I do not think I know what it is… I think it is just called Typorama.
Typorama, yeah, okay.
Anyways it is nice; it is creative and so it helps us, gets our message out through lettering and stuff on the photos, so yeah the Facebook and the Instagram are the two in social media. As far as other technology, I think I do not know. I mean I do not know is there something we should…
I think people, entrepreneurs in the food and beverage, space; social media is definitely like the number one.
We did have an app for a while, yeah and that is kind of where we are at right now is trying to, especially with the pandemic, we need pre-ordering available.
We worked with a couple different companies, we had our own app that was built and then it malfunctioned and then we had another company that reached out to us and we were able, they were able to set something up and again it malfunctioned, it is kind of a, it is a bummer right now with all they need for it and not enough, so…
That is a bummer yeah. Well, shameless plug, we do custom mobile apps for restaurants and cafes.
Nice! We do not shame here. Yeah, I mean maybe hopefully - I am a little bit hesitant now. I am not going to lie they are malfunctioning twice. So, I am like should I continue to work with these like with companies? I do not know.
Yeah I mean, I do not do the tech side obviously but I can get some info and send it to you. But, yeah I know that, we work with a lot of bubble tea stores in Chinatown and they are super happy with it so…
That is great! I do not know but definitely yeah.
Yeah. I will send it to you and see what you think, okay cool and then this is the last, not even a question, we send this out, we put up, should probably take care of it at the beginning but that… if you want to just state for the record, what Belli’s is all about? Where to find you? Like what you guys are serving?
Sure. So, Belli’s is located in Pilsen on 18th street and Throop right off of Ashland and we are a juice bar, smoothie bar, vegan, health spot, so we have pretty much whole lunch menu, breakfast menu, dinner menu when we are open later and we have a market of local products.