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A Passion for Hospitality: How Chef Joanne Thomas Used the ISBDC to Grow Her Business

Chef Joanne Thomas Chef Joanne Thomas has been cooking for more than 40 years—even though she’s only in her early 50s.

Before Thomas went on to start her own catering business, sell a variety of gourmet goods, or do cooking demonstrations across the country, it was her mother who inspired her love of cooking at an early age.

“I used to plead with my mom to buy me packets of yeast from the grocery store when I was only six years old,” she said. “I was so excited to unpack the groceries and find the yeast so I could make homemade cinnamon rolls, dinner rolls, and cookies from scratch.”

Throughout her childhood, Thomas created original recipes to compliment the dishes her mother made, watching every step closely as she prepared meals.

Thomas received her education at Farragut Career Academy, then went on to serve in the United States Marine Corps where she was first introduced to production cooking.

“I was in awe walking into the mess hall for the first time, seeing stock pots standing taller than me,” she said.

Cooking was a part of her basic training and remained one of her core interests throughout. After finishing her time in the service, Thomas went on to complete multiple certificates and degrees in culinary arts, pastry arts, and restaurant management, finishing her bachelor’s degree at the Art Institute.

“I was created to do hospitality,” she said. “I love creating high-quality environments and services that treat customers with warmth, empathy, and professionalism. And I love cooking for people.”

Thomas worked in both the front and back of house in casual and fine-dining restaurants, banquet halls, hospitals, schools, and more. In 2006, she started a catering business, Serenity Catering by Chef Joanne, as a part-time hobby.

But during the pandemic in 2020, Thomas lost her job as an executive chef. It was then that she decided to relaunch and rebrand her business. In her search for small business support, she found the Illinois Small Business Development Center (ISBDC) at McHenry County College.

“They helped me get my business certified through the State of Illinois and assisted with financial planning,” she said. “We walked through my business plan and went over spreadsheets for various financial needs, employee reporting, and sales reporting. They assisted me in pinpointing every dollar to successfully run my business. We met weekly for a while and then monthly to ensure I had everything I needed.”

Thomas was partnered with a specific culinary industry advisor who could also understand the unique elements of her business.

“Depending on your field, you may have someone that can not only give you the basics of business, but can speak to the experience as well,” she said. “I would absolutely recommend the ISBDC to other entrepreneurs.”

The ISBDC also helped her rebrand as Chef Joanne Thomas of Serenity Soul Corporation, serving customers for weddings, birthdays, company picnics, and more.

“Our mission is to provide amazing food, made from scratch, in a comfortable environment while providing excellent customer service,” she said. “Our vision is to become a household name, teaching people how to eat healthy and flavorfully, and to create amazing memories with those we love.”

A unique thing about Thomas’s business is that there are no set menus.

“I want my customers to feel special and that their menu is specifically created for them,” she said.

Thomas has continued growing her brand since expanding in 2020. In 2021, she launched her retail collection which features custom blended spices, seasoned fry and tempura batters, gourmet compound butters, and vegan butters. She also started teaching virtual cooking classes during the pandemic and began offering private chef dinners.

“Many of my customers are repeat customers,” she said of her business growth. “And they share their experiences with their family and friends. They tag me in posts on social media, they look for me at various farmers’ markets. I take advantage of every opportunity I have to bring awareness to my products and services.”

Thomas has been featured on WGN’s Daytime Chicago and Midday News Lunchbreak. She is also active on the local level as part of the Huntley American Legion and Entreprenista Networking Group. She has even partnered with Del Webb Sun City in Huntley to offer cooking classes to the community, and has done cooking demonstrations at farmers’ markets, schools, and more. Her products are available in several stores around the Chicago area, including Butcher on the Block in Lake in the Hills. She also continues to reach out to the ISBDC any time she needs assistance.

“I am blessed to have achieved some of the goals I’ve set for myself on this journey,” she said. “My business is my gift and my passion. A lot of people aren't able to do what they were created to do as a full-time job. I put my heart and soul into everything that I create and establish meaningful relationships with my customers.”

Thomas will be featured on the main stage at the Black Women's Expo in August at McCormick Place Chicago and at the Great Food Expo in October at the Rosemont Convention Center. She also offers monthly chef pop-up dinners at the Huntley Legion.

Learn more about Chef Joanne Thomas, make purchases, or book her services.