Three College of DuPage alumni and local eatery owners are preparing to treat COD community members to their popular cuisine during a day of food and fun on the College’s Glen Ellyn campus.
Jennifer Fortini, Dan Hattori and Laura Pekarik will be among 17 local food truck owners who will serve fare at the ninth annual COD Food Truck Rally and Sunset 5K, Presented by DuPage Medical Group, on Saturday, Oct. 5.
While the entrepreneurs took different paths to get to where they are today, there is a family connection within each of their businesses.
Pekarik, who earned her Associate in Applied Science degree in Business at COD, was inspired by her sister Kathy’s battle with non-Hodgkins T-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of cancer.
“For years, Kathy and I loved baking everything from pastries to scones,” Pekarik said. “When I visited her at the hospital, we would dream up cupcake recipes. I then came home, tried out a new recipe that we discussed and brought the cupcakes to the hospital on my next visit.”
Pekarik and her sister decided they should find a way to share their love for baking while contributing to a good cause, so they created Cupcakes for Courage, which raises money for cancer research and other local nonprofits. In 2011, the food truck hit the road, becoming one of the first in Chicago’s growing food truck market. The business has since expanded to two Cupcakes for Courage food trucks and two Courageous Bakery locations in Elmhurst and Oak Park.
As her success continues, Pekarik appreciates what she learned at College of DuPage.
“All of the teachers really cared about my grades and supported me,” she said. “I also liked the mix of adult and younger students because I learned from the varied opinions that these different generations had to offer.”
Fortini, along with her husband, Nestor, opened Grumpy Gaucho in 2012 to follow their dream of bringing Argentine food to Naperville and other local communities. Grumpy Gaucho now includes a storefront location in Montgomery.
“We started out doing only farmer’s markets on the weekends, initially selling only sauces,” Fortini said. “We later had a custom truck made and eventually began selling empanadas. Those went over so well that we only do special orders for sauces now. Everything worked out for the best.”
Fortini completed a certificate in Criminal Justice at COD and, in addition to running the business with her husband, works full-time as a legal assistant. She credits the College with preparing her for a career.
“I learned a lot at COD,” she said. “I’ve been able to take what I learned at COD and apply it to my profession.”
Dan Hattori and his cousin Eric walked away from their corporate jobs to act on their passion for Asian street food. In 2014, they established PIKO Street Kitchen with a goal to create a flavorful, elevated and authentic Asian street food experience by combining high quality ingredients and new techniques with traditional family recipes.
“Food trucks were relatively new to Chicago at that point,” Hattori said. “From a business standpoint, a food truck made more sense than a brick and mortar restaurant. The food that we serve is also better suited for a food truck.”
Hattori, who completed his general education requirements at COD, said the College helped him develop valuable life skills.
“College of DuPage taught me that I need to be organized and disciplined to succeed,” he said. “My time there also allowed me to grow up and work while I went to school.”
The alumni have participated in the Food Truck Rally event in past years and are grateful for an opportunity to give back to their college community.
“I look forward to the Food Truck Rally and Sunset 5K every year,” said Pekarik. “It is such a well-run event with a great message and delicious food.”
Hattori added that “it’s the event that is closest to my heart because I went to school there.”
Fortini said that it feels good to help students who are in a similar position as she once was.
“I’m very much a ‘pay-it-forward’ type of person,” Fortini said. “People paved the way for us and we want to do the same for others. Education is very important, and when you have that, it gives you more options.”
The Food Truck Rally and Sunset 5K will take place from 2 to 8 p.m., with a VIP Food Truck Rally hour from 1 to 2 p.m. VIP passes can be purchased here. Proceeds from the Sunset 5K go toward COD student scholarships.