Fresh Entrepreneurs

Handmade hats, organic food for children, and a Web site that turns rants into actions. BW Chicago profiles three companies worth watching

Brimming with Business

Graham Thompson, owner of Optimo Fine Hats in Beverly, on the south side of Chicago, has for years gone to Ecuador to buy toquilla straw for Panama hats, and to Italy and Portugal for fancy felts for fedoras. Now the hatmaker wants to reverse at least some of that trade flow—by opening stores in London and Milan. A shop in downtown Chicago is also on the to-do list.

Thompson, 36, who grew up in Oak Brook, Ill., had hat dreams as far back as the eigth grade, idolizing men in hats from 1930s and '40s movies. As a teen, he hung out with South Side master hatter Johnny Tyus and ended up buying Tyus's business, paying him $75,000 from cash flow over three years.

Today, Optimo draws locals willing to spend $500 to $20,000 for custom-made hats, though it boasts celebrity clients, too, including bluesman Buddy Guy, comedian Bernie Mac, and actor Andy Garcia. Thompson also has made hats for movies, including Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks. He's now working on Michael Mann's Chicago gangster film, Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. To supply his new stores, Thompson plans to jack up production to as many as 100 hats a week from 36 today. Revenue should hit $1 million in 2008, he adds, up from $700,000 in 2007 and $100,000 when he opened in 1994. —Howard Wolinsky

Organics for Infants

When Dori Boneck began making organic food for her newborn, Madeleine, in 2006, she decided other mothers might want to feed their little ones the same thing—without the hassle of cooking up meals themselves. So last May the former elementary-school teacher launched Maddy's Organic Meals, the Midwest's first USDA Certified Organic product for children. Boneck and her husband, Carson, produce and package the meals in a professional cooking space they rent in Chicago. Each 8 oz. package costs about $6. There's Perfect Pears for four-month-olds, for instance, or Scrumptious Succotash for eight-month-olds. Maddy's is sold at the Goddess & Grocer and other markets in town and, since February, can be ordered through the company's Web site,—Oscar Raymundo

Turn Your Pet Peeve into a Web Campaign

The Internet has become a podium for rants, but Andrew Mason hopes his Web site will spur actions, not just more hot air. invites people to create or join a campaign on anything, from winterproofing Chicago with a dome to pressuring Pfizer (PFE) to cut drug prices in developing countries. Signing up is free, and site users are not required to follow through on promises to act or contribute money until the campaign has reached what its creator has deemed the "tipping point"—the minimum number of members or funds needed to make a change. In the case of the Chicago Winter Dome, the tipping point is $10 billion. (So far, $233,085 has been pledged.) Mason, 27, dropped out of the master's program in public policy at the University of Chicago to start the site last October. He raised $1 million from angel investors and $4.8 million from New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm in Chevy Chase, Md. The site may soon reach a tipping point of its own: Mason plans to start posting ads. "If the campaign is trying to stop late fees at Hollywood Video," he notes, "it makes a great advertising venue for Blockbuster (BBI) or Netflix (NFLX)." —Oscar Raymundo

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