Never say never.
That’s one thing Imran Rahman has learned over
the last few years.
He used to be adamant about a few things.
They were non-negotiables, really:
I will never own a franchise.
I will never work in food service.
I will never get up early for work.
Ironically though– and much to his chagrin– Rahman is doing all three of those things. He’s the owner of Apple Spice Chicago, a corporate catering business in the heart of the city. His story is one of being open to possibilities. It’s one of longing for something more and taking a risk when he found it.
Sowing the Seeds
A St. Louis native, Rahman moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University. In the years that followed, he worked in consulting, graduated from law school and business school, practiced law in both law firm and in-house roles, and ran operations for a few companies.
“My background was diverse,” Rahman explains. “I always wanted to move my way into running operations and overseeing small to midsize organizations. I always wanted to do something on my own. But I never really knew what that would be. I was hoping I’d have that aha moment on my own somewhere along the way. But it didn’t really come out that way.”
While it wasn’t an aha moment exactly, it was a fortuitous conversation, at, of all places, a Cubs game in Chicago. Rahman met a friend, an architect, “who told me he had decided to go into owning Great Clips. I thought it was the strangest thing– based on his background.”
He went home and told his wife, Kate. He laughed about it, actually. As luck would have it, the next day, Kate sent him a link about a franchise consulting seminar out in the suburbs and encouraged him to go. “What an all-time backfire,” he shares with a smile. “I had zero desire to go.” Rahman, though, admits he’s a “checking-all-the-box-categories” kind of guy, so he agreed to it. Kate also told him about a friend, now a franchise consultant, who was going to be there and suggested they meet up.
To his credit, he went with an open mind. “I went there thinking, I’ll just do this and we’ll see where it goes… but I really don’t think franchising is for me,” Rahman confesses. “It played out exactly that way… it was not for me.” As he walked out the door, though (boxes sufficiently checked), he remembered Kate’s friend. He half-heartedly returned, with a half-hearted attempt to connect. And there, just inside the door, Rahman found him. They exchanged pleasantries and that was that. “I left thinking this was the end of my franchising experiment.”
But then the friend called and asked to meet with a skeptical Rahman. Again, doing his due diligence, he agreed to hear him out. “I told him the one thing I didn’t want to do was food,” he states. “Anything but food.”
They talked through all of the options and nothing sounded remotely interesting to Rahman. But then he presented Apple Spice. “And what drew me to Apple Spice, initially, is what he described. And it’s 100% correct,” attests Rahman. “Even though we are in the food space, we’re really in the operations business. It’s all about logistics and operations, which is what I’ve done most of my career. So even though it’s not IT or legal consulting, it’s more about preparing and getting food in and out the door and timings and customer service. All those things ring true… it’s just a different space.”
Rahman’s interest finally sparked: this opportunity checked the boxes of what he was looking for. He researched and explored. “But what really hooked me in,” he says, “was the people at the corporate group who run Apple Spice. They are based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and they are just wonderful people.” The structure of Apple Spice “fit remarkably well with my background in terms of logistics and operations and the people who would be supporting me.” The legal experience would benefit him, too, in terms of reading and setting up contracts.
And so, the “never say never” became Rahman’s reality: he now owned a franchise. In the food space. And it required very early mornings.
Pruning the Trees
Apple Spice is a corporate caterer. They focus on corporate clients, nonprofits, and academic institutions for their business meetings. They provide boxed meals for breakfasts, lunches, and the occasional special event. “We play a middle space,” Rahman explains. “We’re not your least expensive option but we’re also not your most high-end expensive option, either. We try to play a middle ground so that we can try to work with all sorts of different groups in a way that’s still efficient and manages our margins well.”
Finally, Rahman felt fulfilled. He had his own business. He was doing well. They were growing. But then, after just 1.5 years of running Apple Spice Chicago, the pandemic hit with a vengeance. “And it just all stopped,” he recalls. A normally bustling downtown Chicago was suddenly empty. There were no corporate meetings in which to cater.
So as all savvy businessmen do, Rahman pivoted. “We focused on the groups that were still active and still meeting,” he comments. “We started taking donations from people toward providing individual boxed lunches for healthcare workers and first responders.” Along with his existing relationships with the Chicago Fire Department, Chicago Police Department, and academic institutions, “we found a way to make things work… we had a skeleton crew.” Rahman says he learned every aspect of the business that he might not have learned otherwise.
“There were some lonely days,” he admits. There were weeks when he was the only one in the store. “It became a lot harder; there’s no spreading out any of the work and you have to do everything,” he remembers.
But there were bright spots, too. He catered a baby shower, a bridal party, and even a wedding. They wrapped the boxes with ribbons and bows to make them special. “It was cool to do something that I never thought we’d ever do,” he muses.
Harvesting the Fruit
2023, Rahman says, is sort of like starting all over again, but “with the benefit of knowing how to run the store in a way that I never would have on Day 1.” Downtown Chicago still isn’t as busy as it used to be. But people like individualized box lunches these days. And he doesn’t regret his choice to open Apple Spice, either. One of his best clients, in fact, is his old law firm. “Every time I’m back in the offices over there,” he shares, ‘I just don’t miss it at all. I mean, my hours are worse now. But I have much more control over things. I know what needs to be done so I can manage things the way that makes sense for me. That independence– that autonomy– is something that is very valuable to me.”
While some might get frustrated with last minute orders, Rahman thrives off of those requests. He loves to “come through in the clutch and figure out a way to make it happen. It’s satisfying,” he adds. “What can I do to make this happen? How can I solve this puzzle in a short window? It’s like being in an escape room: you’ve got half an hour to figure it out.” He says he feels like MacGyver sometimes. “And that’s the reward and satisfaction you get from the client when they say, ‘I can’t believe you were able to do that. Thank you so much.’ Those sorts of things are the best. I love the customer interaction.”
Recently, he delivered 500 boxed lunches to a client on a Sunday. As he was returning to the store (completely exhausted, by the way), Rahman got a call: Can you bring over 100 more? “We had nothing ready,” he laments. But with the help of his wife, they pulled it off and made the delivery 90 minutes later to a very grateful client. “That’s the best feeling,” he gushes.
Rahman is quick to praise the company of Apple Spice for their support. They don’t have thousands of franchises, as many other franchising companies do. “I am the franchisee of Chicago,” he says. “I took the Chicago market– the downtown and the ring around it.”
Because they are smaller, Rahman believes “the corporate group knows everybody very intimately. They do their due diligence to make sure they’re bringing in the kind of people they think they want to work with and alongside that will represent them well.”
As part of the franchise advisory council, Rahman gives feedback to the corporate groups in a structured manner. They have regular meetings. Rahman feels heard with his ideas: “They are very good at keeping the dialogue open and being a supportive structure.”
Rahman has dreams of maybe having some satellite locations in Chicagoland, allowing his main store to be the primary bread station. “The satellites could be preparing food. We could split up deliveries, etc,” he states.
But for now, Rahman continues to bake his bread and build his clientele with good food and exceptional service. Baking bread requires early mornings. “The younger version of Imran,” he claims, “the pre-Apple Spice one? He would have laughed if you told him he would get up at 4:30 in the morning on the regular. I am so far from a morning person. I’m a night owl all the way! It’s comical how life finds a way to be like, ‘oh, you think you’re a night owl? Well, here’s a job that will make sure that you are no longer that way!’”
Rahman says he’s learned to never say never. “All those definitive things you think you know and think you are about… saying ‘there’s no way’ or ‘I will always do this’… Just give it a little bit of time,” he chuckles. “Those are wonderful things to believe. And then you find yourself doing those exact things down the road.”
Rahman is checking different boxes these days in the early morning hours at Apple Spice Chicago.
And he’s having the time of his life.