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The Grub Game 

A Gourmet Goes to Press

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Christina Hansen still recalls the smells from her Polish grandmother's kitchen: freshly made potato pancakes, or perch frying in a pan, caught that day in Lake Michigan by her grandfather. Berry picking was one of her grandparents' favorite summer activities, and their kitchen would be filled with the bounty, ready to be made into pies and jams. And "I'll never forget my grandma's bow tie cookies," Hansen says. "She'd store them in huge roasting pans in the closet because there was nowhere else to put them.

"Those are my memories of good food," says the publisher of Chicago's newest food newspaper, Local Palate: Culinary Adventures in the Heartland. "My mom was part of that generation that opened a lot of cans and packages," she says. "My mom was the opposite of her mom--she didn't cook at all."

Hansen grew up in Hyde Park and went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, then spent nine years working in sales, many of them in the advertising department at the Reader. Inspired by a cooking class she took at Whole Foods, she enrolled in culinary school in the spring of 1998. "I really liked my job but knew I needed a change," she says. "I was only 36 at the time and knew I was still young enough."

She signed up for the culinary program at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and arranged to go part-time at her job. Before school began she took a vacation she'd already planned to New Mexico, where she saw an intriguing food newspaper called Local Flavor, distributed in Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. "I thought it was such a great idea and that if these medium-sized cities could support it, we certainly could here," she remembers. When she got home she investigated the cost of start-up and printing, but she concluded that the timing wasn't right--she wanted to pursue cooking school. She got her associate's degree from CHIC in fall 1999 and spent the next year working various jobs: at Uncommon Ground and for caterers Elegant Edge and A La Carte. By fall 2000, she felt both she and the market were ready for a local foodie newspaper.

With little business knowledge, Hansen enrolled in the four-month Entrepreneurship Training Program at Jane Addams Hull House, where she learned to create a business plan, make contacts, and do a comprehensive market analysis. She called several similar food publications for advice, including Table in New York's Hudson Valley and Easy Food in New Orleans. "I had a chance to talk to the founders of these papers, and they were such a valuable resource," she says. "I admit that during my market research, I had some people tell me they thought this was the worst idea they'd heard. But I thought it was better to hear the negative, because then you can see the worst-case scenario."

The 24-page debut issue of Local Palate came out a few weeks ago, featuring a tour of Argyle Street's Vietnamese restaurants; profiles of Gino Gambarota, the corned beef carver at Manny's Coffee Shop, and Indiana goat cheese producer Judy Schad; an interview with pastry chef Mindy Segal; a photo essay on a south-side church kitchen; listings of food festivals and local artisanal products; and more. It has a masthead full of local talent, including editor Alice Van Housen and director of photography Eric Futran. Hansen plans to publish every other month, and within a year she'd like to double her initial press run of 10,000.

Her biggest challenge will be maintaining advertising support. "I knew then and still know that it's going to be challenging selling it," she admits. "Restaurants aren't used to seeing advertising as an investment. They rely more on word of mouth. It's tricky because we really want to keep advertising and editorial separate: once the reader senses that a story is written because someone is advertising, it's all over. The nature of the paper is such that we will cover people who happen to advertise, but it's not because they advertise."

To beef up her advertising clientele, she established a lower-priced tier of advertising for smaller restaurants and shops that can't afford the bigger papers. "I looked at the ad prices in most major newspapers, and they're steep." Right now she's fortunate to have most of her advertisers committed to staying with her for a full year. "We'll see," she says. "I think it's a good turnout, but I'll just have to see what happens."

Local Palate is distributed from Hyde Park to Evanston and west to River Forest and Oak Park, dropped off at gourmet food markets and wine shops--Sam's Liquors, Whole Foods, Trotter's to Go, Foodstuffs--and Borders bookstores. "I'm trying to get it where there's a lot of foot traffic and there's the right audience--people who like to go out to eat and spend money on food," says Hansen. "I figure since it's free, who wouldn't pick it up, even if they only get one thing out of it?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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