Since opening its doors in the fall of 2021 in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, Sweet Vegan Bakes has been a beacon of the community. A destination for delectable vegan treats and savory dishes ranging from breakfast platters to vegan shrimp and grits, Sweet Vegan Bakes has made a name for itself in more ways than one.

Beyond must-try, plant-based eats, chef-owner Cheryl Nelson is steadfast in her commitment to give back to the community—via donations, giveaways, and charitable drives—that has in turn, helped her business flourish. 

Sweet Vegan Bakes on ‘Good Morning America’

Last month, Nelson and Sweet Vegan Bakes were surprised with a check for $10,000 by building materials company 84 Lumber on morning news program Good Morning America

During the live segment, Nelson was, quite literally, left speechless. “It was the most amazing feeling, to know that a platform that large even knew that I [and Sweet Vegan Bakes] existed,” she tells VegNews.

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When Nelson was approached by producers, the entrepreneur was under the impression she was being spotlighted by local media for launching her bakery during the pandemic, a time when countless businesses were forced to shutter their doors. 

It wasn’t until Good Morning America’s Lori Bergamotto, who interviewed Nelson for the segment, announced they were live on the nationwide show that the vegan entrepreneur was clued in.

After sharing her story with viewers, Nelson was awarded $10,000 as part of Good Morning America’s Up In Your Business, an ongoing series surprising small business owners known to have busy summer seasons. 

“My phones haven’t stopped ringing,” Nelson tells VegNews when asked how life has changed since appearing on the ABC morning show. 

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With the money, which is meant to give small businesses a helpful boost, Nelson will hire and train new employees to help with her influx of orders. Already, she’s dedicated $5,000, half of the money, to hiring and training. 

“Since I’ve been on the show, I’ve gotten large catering orders,” she shares. “Offices and corporations are calling. ‘Can you do this? We need that.’ It’s been amazing.”

Sweet Vegan Bakes and the power of community

And what does the chef-owner plan on doing with the remaining $5,000? Nelson is funneling it back into her local community. 

Nelson donates to local animal and women’s shelters as well as activist groups dedicated to improving planetary health and the lives of animals, something she has been doing well before her appearance on Good Morning America

Beyond monetary donations, Sweet Vegan Bakes has also hosted a number of charitable drives and giveaways. In the fall, the Old Town bakery hosts a back-to-school drive, where backpacks and school supplies are given away. 

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In October, Nelson’s coat drive helps communities in need gear up for the frosty Chicago winter. And at the advent of the holiday season, Sweet Vegan Bakes offers free Thanksgiving meals and gifts toys to children come December. 

Nelson’s allocated the remaining $5,000 to amp up these charitable drives and giveaways. 

“As a small business, it is my obligation to [give back] to the community the way the community has given to me,” she says. “A lot of times, companies will open within a community, they’ll be there for 30-plus years, and they never give back. The community gives to the business, but the business does not.”

The making of Sweet Vegan Bakes

While Sweet Vegan Bakes first opened in September 2021, just six months after the idea for the concept first came to Nelson, its early beginnings can be traced back to the entrepreneur’s childhood. 

Nelson’s grandmother, who raised the entrepreneur, would enlist her help in the kitchen, and together, the two would create sweet treats. Nelson recalls making ice cream with her grandmother, using coffee cans and rock salt in place of an ice cream maker. 

With her coffee cans in tow, a young Nelson and her grandmother would head outside to roll their cans on the concrete. “We would go outside and I’d be rolling [the coffee cans] down the street on the concrete to create friction and make the ice cream,” she says. “The younger kids would ask, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ [And I’d say,] ‘Making ice cream with my grandma.’ People thought I was strange for rolling these cans on the ground and making ice cream, but it worked every time.”

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Baking was another of the pair’s favorite pastimes. And while Nelson notes baking was never at the forefront of her mind, everything she learned from her grandmother helped the entrepreneur make Sweet Vegan Bakes into a reality. 

After adopting a plant-based lifestyle nearly 18 years ago to help with a multitude of health issues, Nelson felt better than ever, but she was missing one thing: baked goods. Through trial and error, she veganized her grandmother’s recipes. But opening a vegan bakery wasn’t anywhere on her radar. 

Until recently, Nelson had been working as a business professor for a few years when, in 2021, she thought of opening a vegan bakery. The pandemic and ongoing civil unrest prompted her to take the plunge. 

Nelson took a leap of faith and poured her life savings into Sweet Vegan Bakes. “[The government] had opportunities for businesses that opened prior to the pandemic. They offered some sort of grant funding and money, but we didn’t qualify because we opened up during the pandemic,” Nelson shares. “Capital was one of the challenges for us in the beginning.”

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Despite early challenges, Sweet Vegan Bakes has made a name for itself in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. And soon, the bakery will be expanding into Richton Park, where Nelson will open a second location. The new 5,000-square-foot bakery—nearly seven times bigger than Nelson’s flagship 700-square-foot shop—will allow for a full-service restaurant specializing in breakfast and lunch as well as faster turnaround on cakes and pastries.

Beyond her new location, Nelson also dreams of partnering with Duncan Hines, Sara Lee, or Betty Crocker to bring her top 12 allergen-free cake and waffle mix to market. 

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