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5 Chicagoans to Watch

Exquisitely decorated rental properties. Healthy food in unexpected places. Handmade leather pieces with contemporary flair. These five innovators deliver the goods in new and surprising ways.

5 Chicagoans to Watch

When her exqusite rented townhome in Humbolt Park got rave reviews, Liz Klafeta’s business was born.

1. Nick Moretti
It’s not that nobody thought he could do it—just most people. Nick Moretti’s idea was to buy a long-unused 9,000-square-foot property near the bustling six-corner intersection that divides Bucktown and Wicker Park, then custom-build it out to include an Italian deli, a full-service bar and restaurant, a first-rate butcher shop and—this may have been the sticking point for some—a medium-sized event venue/performance space that could handle almost any type of gathering. Two years later, Chop Shop (and 1st Ward, the lofty back half of the space) has become just the kind of multifunctional space that urban theorists deem critical for community vitality. There’s a weekly indoor bocce league. The high-quality meat selections can expand far beyond typical supermarket offerings. There have been performances by The 1975, Hannibal Buress and The Weeknd—not to mention a pizza festival and a video game championship. Job well done. –DZ 

2. Liz Klafeta
Back in 2013, Liz Klafeta was working as a wardrobe and prop stylist, splitting time between Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. She started renting her underused Humboldt Park townhome—as stylish as she herself—on Airbnb. And the rave reviews got her thinking: She could make money, help pay off her mortgage and give people a turnkey solution to the well-curated lifestyle we all wish to have. Thus, Bangtel was born—a design-hospitality firm with ultra-hip furnished homes available for short- and long-term stays. Today, in partnership with Chicago developer New Era Chicago, Klafeta operates 14 properties, each featuring around-the-clock concierge service, a fully stocked minibar and a menu of in-room amenities. Given her expertise (and her experience styling for the Property Brothers TV show), it comes as no surprise to learn that Klafeta has also caught the eye of production executives; rumor has it she’s slated to star in an upcoming HGTV series. “Stay tuned,” Klafeta says—and we will. –CR

3. Brian Spaly
Trunk Club—a brand that Spaly launched in 2009—addresses the general sartorial cluelessness of men by shipping them boxes of fashion-forward apparel to try on at home. If they don’t like the stuff, they return it. No shopping—but still great guidance. While the operation began as just an e-tailer, Trunk Club now has seven locations (three in the greater Chicago area, as well as Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.), called “clubhouses,” where clients can pick up their items or work one-on-one with personal stylists and try on handpicked pieces based on their fit and style preferences. As Spaly himself notes, he is a disrupter. “There’s really no retail experience that offers this level of service,” says Spaly, whose career in the garment space began as the founder of the men’s clothing label Bonobos. His success, ironically enough, drew the interest of Nordstrom, arguably one of Trunk Club’s natural competitors, allowing the company to now carry more than 100 brands and expand into the women’s market. “It’s rare these days to have a job where you produce something,” says Spaly, sitting in his bustling River North headquarters. “I was lucky enough at 30 to focus my career on making products and delight people in the process.” –CR

4. Luke Saunders
The idea to put organic, healthful salads in vending machines didn’t come to Luke Saunders as he reflected on his time spent gardening with his mother as a boy. No, the idea stemmed from his travels through the industrial hinterlands as a salesman for metal coatings. Saunders’ job required him to visit out-of-the-way factories and warehouses, and he saw that most of the people there were forced to get by on unhealthy fast food or cheap vending machine burritos. When Saunders and his wife moved to Chicago in 2013, he quit his sales job and started his company, Farmer’s Fridge, which creates vending machines (although he prefers the term “kiosks”) that sell restaurant-quality salads and snacks. Offerings include several types of salad with bases including romaine, spinach and Napa cabbage; breakfasts like almond butter oatmeal with banana and toasted coconut; and snacks like Greek yogurt with granola. After three years of struggle—and burning through his life savings—it appears Saunders’ bet is paying off; with 40 Farmer’s Fridge kiosks in the city (and more on the way), his dream has truly been materialized. –JR

5. Brandi Devers
Standing in Brandi Devers’ home studio is like standing at the crossroads of time. Dark wood fixtures, mannequins draped in flapper dresses and rows of leather goods in various stages of completion give off a traditionalist vibe, yet hanging exotic skins and two rambunctious French bulldogs reveal her absolutely up-to-date sensibility. It’s hard to believe this stylish young woman is a cobbler, a word that usually evokes images of white-haired men hunched over wooden clogs. Customers of her growing business don’t seem to mind, snatching up custom-made leather goods with exotic skins including crocodile loafers and perch combat boots. Prices can range up to $20,000 or more, with the higher end taken by unexpected one-off items like ostrich footballs and alligator-wrapped headphones ($1,600). Before turning to shoes, Devers studied fashion in Los Angeles, inspired in part by the clothing store her mother owned. She had apprenticeships in Sweden and Wales with top artisans, and finished school in 2012. The majority of her clients find her on Instagram—that’s where The Frye Company, which subsequently partnered with her on a customization event at its flagship store, spotted her. “I love making what I feel in the moment,” Devers says. So do we. –SJ