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The Flyover Series: Foodseum with Kyle Joseph

Who are you?

Kyle: My name is Kyle Joseph and I am the executive directorand founder of Chicago Foodseum, Chicago’s first and only food museum.

What is Foodseum?

Kyle: What we’re working to do is to create a museum aroundfood, where you walk through exhibits on different food types: chocolate,cheese, and coffee. The first one we’re looking to create for May is the hotdog and encased meat of the world exhibit. Being Chicago, we thought it wouldbe fitting to start with a hot dog, and we’re excited to be a part of Chicago.Inside these exhibits, you learn about the history of food, how the productfirst originated, and how it immigrated to the United States. We look at howit’s changed over time, looking at craft artisans, the industrialization offood, to what we really get to enjoy today, and the great stories behind it. Weshowcase the farm to table aspects so you get to see what ingredients go intothat food type, what it looked like in the farm or on the ground, and how theytranslated that to a chefs table. We showcase ways where you can see it cometogether, to see the actual cooking process, so people can see that it isn’trocket science. This is stuff they can start to do at home, to engage them withthe idea of cooking. The last big component is discovery of internationalflavors, so you can see what other cultures do in that food type around theworld. We, as Americans, have a tendency to stick to what we know. We want tochallenge that and push people outside of their comfort zone and start todiscover these great flavors from around the world. Overall, the mission is toreconnect people to their food. We’re an education-based, non-profit, museum,so ever altruistic in our mission to educate people on food, to inspire apassion, to create that spark, to want to learn more, to go out and adventure abit in this wonderful world.

What does a hot dogtaste like in other cultures, for example? What is done differently with a hotdog?

Kyle: That really plays into the encased meats piece. Almostevery culture has some kind of encased meat, whether its blood sausage,chorizo, or Kielbasa. There is a very wide breadth of Asian sausages that, thisgoes back to how people have always eaten, is full animal. They utilize thedifferent components and they create flavors. Over time, those flavors havechanged and innovated. But again, we tend to stay pretty true to what we know,which is the frankfurter, without even investigating these wonderful differentflavors. One of the fun things we’re doing is we formed a culinary advisoryboard, so we’re getting some very fun big named  chefs from around Chicago to actually createrecipes for us. So when you taste Korean sausage for the first time, it’s EdKim’s Korean sausage from Ruxbin and Mott Street. So there’s a familiar facebehind it, which makes it more accessible and more fun to taste.

What was the genesisof the idea? What made you want to start a Foodseum?

Kyle: This is something I came up with but it’s beendeveloping over many, many years. I was originally born in California but whenI was three my parents picked up and moved us to London, England. They thoughtit was their one and only chance to see Europe, and so they carted my sisterand I around every weekend to a different bed and breakfast in a small part oftown.  From a very young age, I got toexperience new cultures on a regular basis. I fell in love with the food. Ifell in love with, even though these people couldn’t talk to me, with theirfood. They could share their culture with me, they could share who they werethrough the food we ate. It was an exciting piece that stayed with methroughout my life. We ended up spending five years in England. I was inFrankfurt, Germany for high school and ended up traveling mainland Europe aton, and again, really fell in love with this, this piece where I started tosee beyond that, the stories that led to where the food came from. When I cameback to the US, that connection was lacking. There are so many great cultures here;I wanted to figure out a way for other people to experience the passion that Ihad found in food. And, coming from a line of educators, professors, andteachers, the natural way was for me to create an educational piece, and inthis case, a physical museum. We do a lot of fun interactive learning pieces,which is something that’s a core belief of mine.

How do you getstarted with this type of educational non-profit?

Kyle: Well I’ve done a couple of tech start-ups but this isdefinitely my first non-profit start-up, but it’s still a start-up.  The Lean start-up philosophies still apply,and so we went out first and said, what do we need to know in order to executethis?  What’s the pain point? And we didour research. We’ve partnered with all the different local museums in town;we’re close with the Field Museum, the History museum, the Children’s museum,Adler Planetarium, MSI, and the Shedd Aquarium.  We just did an exhibit, Adler After Dark, atAdler Planetarium and it was really cool. We went out and said “Ok, how dopeople do this? What do their books look like? What does their accounting looklike? What does their income look like? How do they manage that?”  We also learned a ton about experientialdesign from them and were connected to a very interested niche world, in Chicago,of experiential design. The CMEG, the Chicagoland Museum Exhibitors Group, havetaught us how things are done currently. And also using our teams’ tech background we created a model for what wewanted to build. We’ve talked to architects, we’ve talked with constructioncompanies, we’ve partnered with schools to define a plan for how we are goingto execute this. And then, just like any other start-up, we go and start toraise money. We actually are currently running a Kickstarter campaign right now,you can find us at We’re trying to get our fans to helpus in some of the fundraising pieces, but we are looking for some corporatesponsors, as well as just individuals who are givers. As a non-profit, you alsohave access to grants, which is interesting, but a whole other process.

What does your teamlook like?

Being a non-profit, we are all volunteers at this point, butwe’ve made a ton of traction. People are very excited about the idea, and thathas been our main motivation, as people really seem to want this. We have acurrent team of thirteen dedicated officers who are working on this, not fulltime, but they have large roles that they own. We have about seventy activeprofessional volunteers outside of that, who each take on very small parts ofwhat we’re building. We get about three emails a week from people who find usand reach out wanting to help. So, to be honest, one of the biggest challengesfor me as the only one who’s really full time on this, is how you manage all ofthese people who want to help. At some point you almost get overwhelmed becauseyou’re spending all of your time trying to manage all of them.  However, I’m a big believer in surroundingyourself with great people and we have some amazing officers really doing somecool things. On top of that, we have worked hard to form partnerships withother organizations, as I mentioned, and so that’s also been a key piece. We’vegathered a ton of in-kind donations and in-kind sponsorships to get our plan inorder so that it really is ready to execute once we raise the funding for theactual exhibit itself.

Have you foundworking with these Museum partners easy? Are they excited about the idea?

Kyle: At first, I was nervous that they would look at us ascompetition. I don’t’ know the museum world and I didn’t know how they wouldreact, but I was blown away by how excited and welcoming they were. I’d like tosay it’s Midwest, just kindness with them opening doors. We learned so much fromthem in the early stages with “Hey, here’s how everything works, here’s whatyou should be careful of, make sure you do this when you’re setting up thestructure.” It really has been mind-boggling. At the end of the day, though,Chicago is a great tourist destination. About 65% of all museum traffic istourist based. If we can bring in even more people, they’re not going to go tojust one museum they’re going to go to a couple. So, the more attractions thecity has, the more everyone benefits. They get all of that too, so having us here,having George Lucas here, which we’re really excited about that, is great.Again, the more attractions there are in Chicago, the more the city benefits.

Having experienced atech start-up and a non-profit, is there a difference in how you’ve conveyedyour vision for the idea?  

Kyle: Without a doubt, the pitch is completely different. Ina tech start-up, or a for-profit start-up, you’re much more about developing astrategy for executing business, to make money. Here’s our revenue coststructure, here’s what we’re doing to try and make this pain point. When you’repitching for fundraising, you’re trying to get dollars. They want to know theexecution parts and what your structure looks like. On a non-profit, where you’repitching donors, sometimes they want to know what you’re doing. They want toknow what you’re doing with the money, where it goes to, they don’t care muchabout the details. It’s very much a heartstring pitch. You’ve got to come inand say “Why are we changing the world?” That’s what they care about, they careabout your mission, and they care about how clear it is. You can’t just say “I’mgoing to feed the hungry,” that’s great and a lot of people want to do that, butthey want to know how and where you’re vision goes. It’s not so much aboutwhere your money goes but the clarity of your vision, how are you differentfrom the other guys? We’re about education and celebration of food. To keepthat vision clear has been a challenge for us. Now we know where we’re going,what we’re doing, it’s just a matter of how you communicate that in a way thatresonates with everybody.

How has Foodseumchanged over the course of its existence?

Kyle: When I first started really working on this is wasalmost a Disneyland of food, where it was really just about the passion,finding the fun of it, and trying to help people get excited about food. That’swhat I was, I was passionate about food. As we brought on more people, learnedabout the museums, the education part really became the core and the staple,and we found a big pain point where food education is not a part of any schoolcurriculum, minus some very specialty groups that are working very hard to makeit there. Most people are getting farther and farther disconnected with theirfood. We eat stuff and we don’t really ask where it comes from. We don’t reallyask why it tastes that way, and so we pivoted from the fun to teach a littlemore on the core of it. To ask, where did it come from? How does it cometogether? Really fun, interesting insights, on what we all should know aboutwhat we’re eating.

What have been themost important resources that you’ve utilized to get to where you are now?

Kyle: The easiest answer is people. This has been just atotal team effort of a lot of people in Chicago. It’s been about getting as manypeople behind it as possible. And with the team that you have, you go and tryto execute it with the power of the city behind you. Beyond that, having techstartup background has been pretty helpful. We threw up websites prettyquickly. We’ve been pretty strong on social media. Being scrappy, being intelligent,and knowing the right people really, is the only way that we’re surviving.

What’s the mostdifficult challenge that you’ve faced thus far, or a lesson that you’velearned, up to this point?

Kyle: The biggest lesson so far has come down to thedifference in running a volunteer based organization versus a for-profitorganization. In a for-profit, you’re pretty much all paid employees orcontractors. They have a responsibility to you based on the fact that you’repaying them. Now we’re working with people who are donating their time becausethey really believe in something. And so, you’re really selling that passion,and you’re selling the heartstring pitch, but then you have to manage them, butthey all have full time priorities, which is how they survive and live. We’realways a second priority, which you just have to come to understand. When youneed something from somebody, you have to know that either you might need to goto somebody else or you’re going to have to wait. It’s just something that youhave to get used to, and you’re managing that across eighty-five people, you’rejust balancing a lot. “You’ve got to keep your head up and know that it’s goingto happen but it’s going to take some time, and we’ve got enough support, we’lljust keep rotating.” We’ll have people volunteer and really do some dedicatedwork for two months, and then get a new job, and then they can’t volunteer atall anymore. It’s this constant kind of churning and I guess the lesson learnedin that, and how we’ve survived, is that we have a very good core structure ofhow we bring people quickly on and introduce them to our system. We keep asmuch organized as possible so that we can say “OK here is your small chunk thatyou’re gonna take on, here is everything you know and you need, everything youneed to know to execute it , and then, let us know when it’s ready. Here’s thegeneral deadlines we’re looking for.” That organization, that ability, toclearly and concisely communicate our brand, what they represent, and what weneed them to do is, again, the only reason we’re still alive.

What made you want tobase your business in Chicago?

Kyle: We believe Chicago is the greatest food town in thecountry right now. It was founded on beef and grain production. It’s namedafter an onion, which is a fun fact for people who don’t know that. The onionused to grow on the shores; it’s an old Native American term. This city grew onfood production, and food is still a major part of its economy. It’s a touristdestination and a great museum destination, I couldn’t think of a better placeto be.