Stephanie Hart is the owner and operator of Brown Sugar Bakery, a Chicago Southside staple that has opened a shop in Navy Pier, and serves up its famous caramel covered cake to guests. We recently chatted with Stephanie about her business, hopes for the Pier, and what she loves about being an ambassador for Chicago.
What does the reopening of Navy Pier mean to you?
The reopening of Navy Pier is so impactful in my life right now and refreshing. It is a symbol of hope and excitement for me that things are getting back to normal. Really, I think it is the biggest symbol of things getting back to normal for me. I love being at the Pier. I love the space at the Pier. I love the interactions that I get to have with the other Pier partners, and seeing the Pier close, it was just devastating. I came down one time while the Pier was closed, and I never came back again. I couldn’t. There were things that I needed to do, and I would send other people because it was just that devastating, and for it to be open, and the push, and all that goes into … the inertia that’s necessarily to get this cycle going makes me feel super happy.
For me, the pandemic is in my rear view, and what I look forward to now is seeing the Ferris wheel lit up, and going to the fireworks, and these are all things that are maybe I took a little bit for granted that I don’t take for granted anymore. I don’t take the fireworks for granted. I don’t take the space for granted. I don’t take the opportunity to represent Chicago to tourists for granted anymore.
As a business owner, how has Navy Pier made a positive impact on your life/business/career?
Navy Pier, being a part of Navy Pier and actually being a partner at the Pier, for me it may hold some extra special sauce, if you will, that extra cheese. Just because coming from a community that is underrepresented, it is a celebration everyday for me to represent my community to the entire world, and it’s just really important. And so, I don’t feel like I’m at Navy Pier alone. I feel like at Navy Pier, I get to say, “I’m here, and so are a bunch of other people that look like me, cook like me, speak like me,” and that’s just super … It’s a huge honor, and I don’t want to use the word “responsibility” but maybe an opportunity I do not take for granted.
As one of Chicago’s iconic cultural institutions – what does Navy Pier mean to you?
My first day open at the pier, it was such a blast. I spent almost the whole day not serving cupcakes or ringing the cash register but taking pictures with patrons and talk about Chicago, what else is there to do, what’s further down. It was just like I was an ambassador for the pier.
We always talk to the team about you don’t know who you’re talking to. Whether they’re from Chicago, whether they’re not from Chicago, and I’m impressing on them that people are here for a good time. It’s not just our responsibility to sell them an item, it’s our responsibility to participate in an experience. The way that we do that is with being engaging, being helpful, being encouraging and welcoming. That is just really, really important to us.
How would you describe Navy Pier to someone who has never been to the Pier before?
It’s a wonderful place that you can go and see a little bit of Chicago; all the neighborhoods represented; taste our food; see wonderful sights; hear great music. If you have children, it is such a great place. My daughter grew up at Navy Pier, like literally we were at the opening of the Children’s Museum when it opened at the Pier, and I do believe that’s like almost 24 years ago now! My daughter’s 29 so she might have been five or six then. And so I would describe it as a place where, especially if you don’t have a lot of time, that you can take in Chicago in a one mile walk.
What is the best part of the experience that you provide?
What I’m so excited about or what I feel and hope to provide is that as you’re taking in Chicago, we get to be that something sweet that helps you make a wonderful memory about Chicago. Our brand touts “life is sweet,” and that is the feeling we want you to have. You know, the song is Sweet Home Chicago, right? We want you to feel like that when you leave, you’re leaving Sweet Home Chicago. Right? That’s the feeling we want you to have.
What is your hope for Navy Pier? Like let’s say the next 10 years, what is your hope for Navy Pier to become?
I hope that Navy Pier becomes even more iconic than it already is. I see Navy Pier striving and doing an excellent job at being more and more inclusive. I see Navy Pier as developing more experiences for people outside of Chicago and people in Chicago to come and really have a good time. I love being at the Pier. I hear different languages. I know I’m in Chicago, but I hear different languages, all the culture that’s at the Pier, and I just hope that it continues to build and be a strong representation of Chicago to the world.
A lot of people don’t know that Navy Pier is a nonprofit or has been a nonprofit for at least the past decade. We operate largely on the fundraising and donations of others. What would you say to encourage someone who has never contributed to the Navy Pier before?
I would say that Navy Pier is a great place to consider making a donation for several reasons. One, Navy Pier is a great employer of young people of all types. There is so much opportunity for employment, and that is such an important thing. Navy Pier is a place of great standards and opportunity for those young people to develop to go to the next level. That in and of itself is one reason to donate. Navy Pier secondly, from a culture standpoint, is so diverse. As you know, to build a community, to build a city that is inclusive of everyone where we have peace. Navy Pier is a perfect ground for the development of communication and the understanding of other cultures through arts, through stories, through theater, through dining. It is just a place that unites people and an experience that is good. So, I totally believe that it’s worthy of a donation. Because when you leave Navy Pier, you leave feeling good, and that’s something that, “Who doesn’t want to invest in people feeling better about cross culture?” I just can’t even think of anything better to invest in.