Revival Chili Improves Lives, One Bowl of Chili at a Time
By Matthew Hacke
When Jordan Robarge thinks of chili, the words “family” and “community” immediately come to mind. “Growing up, my family would make chili and we always ended up making way more than we needed. So, we’d take it to a church event or give it to a family member with a newborn — something along those lines,” he says. The 24-year-old budding entrepreneur’s particular interest in the entree was heightened as he continued his undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia. “I joined a fraternity —Theta Delta Chi — and we’d do a huge chili event every single year,” Robarge explains. “That event was what always brought all of the fraternity brothers together. We’d be prepping and cooking chili all day the day before the event and we’d get up early the next day for the event to serve it.”
If you had asked Robarge four years ago if he would eventually turn his love of chili into a full-time career and business, he would have responded no. The systems engineering major from Northern Virginia was destined —like many in his major in school— to work for a big firm in D.C. Life threw him a curveball freshman year of college when he was arrested and convicted of underage drinking. “That conviction — that mistake I made when I was 19 — is on my record forever,” he says. Robarge didn’t begin to see the direct impact and repercussions of this conviction until senior year, when he began applying for jobs. “When I was graduating, I was interviewing with a lot of government consulting firms and I would get far into the process. Then, I would go to my final interview and afterward the company would be like, ‘OK, you’ll hear from us in a couple of days.’ And a few days later, I would always get a call saying that they wouldn’t be able to hire me,” he says. While companies wouldn’t always provide answers as to why they hadn’t chosen to hire Robarge, some would later disclose that they had run a criminal background check. “A lot of times, these companies would say, ‘We ran a background check and we can’t hire you.’ It was pretty disheartening, especially seeing all of my classmates getting well-paying jobs,” Robarge continues.
Instead of dwelling on a past he couldn’t change, Robarge looked forward to the future. “I applied my senior year of college to Venture for America, a highly selective program that works as an entrepreneurial incubator and places fellows in smaller cities across America looking to revitalize and grow,” he explains. Venture for America led Robarge to Pittsburgh, which brought him to his first position here, working for Thrill Mill — the organization that puts on the annual Thrival Music Festival in Braddock. “I graduated from undergrad in May 2015, and August 2015 was when I officially moved to Pittsburgh. The Thrival Music Festival occurred a month later in September. So, from August 2015 through June 2016 I was with Thrill Mill,” says Robarge. “It was then that I parted ways with Thrill Mill and officially started my current business: Revival Chili.”
Shortly after, Robarge developed a business plan for a start-up that would not only encompass making and selling chili, but also help others who face similar circumstances as himself when applying for jobs with charges on their background. “When I started Revival Chili, I had already met my partner organization, Zero Six Eight, through working with Thrival,” he says. “Zero Six Eight is an incubator for ex-convicts, for companies who want to hire ex-convicts, or for re-entering citizens that would like to start their own business. Zero Six Eight essentially helps these ex-convicts get their feet off of the ground.” After working with Zero Six Eight through the hiring process for his new business, Robarge then sought out funding to get his idea up and running. “We started this whole process the summer of 2016, but faced some roadblocks with funding and obtaining a food trailer.”
Robarge soon realized that he needed to find other sources of funding and started talking to different lending sources, such as Bridgeway Capital. “Serendipitously, I found out that Venture for America hosts a crowdfunding competition of sorts through their fellows and their founding companies during the month of March.” He put conversations with lending sources on hold and turned his focus toward the competition. The waiting proved to be fruitful for Robarge and Revival Chili. “During the crowdfunding competition, we raised $14,500 and then had another $14,500 outside of it that was promised from lenders, for a combined grand total, after fees, of around $28,000,” Robarge says excitedly. As luck would have it, during the last week of the competition, Robarge also found a food trailer in North Carolina. “I was searching on Ebay and found an awesome trailer that was exactly what I wanted,” he says. “The trailer is home-built and the exterior looks like it’s a tiny home. It’s one of a kind.”
Since acquiring the trailer and finishing the buildout, Robarge has shifted his focus to his chili menu and employees. “Initially with Revival Chili, we were catering events and going to farmer’s markets where we would have a tent or a table. But now with the food trailer, that is all going to change,” he says. Using the original recipe from his fraternity, with significant amounts of modifications, Robarge’s Revival Chili is sold and prepared in a customized way, similar to that of Chipotle Mexican Grill. “A customer chooses their chili, their base, and up to three additional toppings,” he says. Currently, Robarge has one full-time worker and three part-time workers, but is planning on adding more full-time employees now that the food trailer is up and running.
Robarge truly has come full circle, as his passion for chili and the attachment of community and family it has for him are finally coming to life. “The premise of my business and my name is that we’re trying to revive lives,” he says. “We’re reviving people’s lives by serving them good and healthy food, but more specifically with our employees, we are giving them a second chance and getting them back on their feet after being previously incarcerated. I just want to see these guys succeed because they are awesome individuals. It’s been a lot of fun, to say the least, and I’m just excited to see where Revival Chili takes me and my employees.”
Revival Chili, revivalchili.com
HOW IT WORKS
Building your ideal bowl at Revival Chili is as easy as 1, 2, 3!
1. CHOOSE YOUR BASE:
2. CHOOSE YOUR CHILI:
• Classic Beef — As Revival Chili’s signature chili, you can never go wrong with this one. All the right flavors blend together from the seven different spices used.
• Chili Con Pollo (Spicy Chicken) — One bite of this chili is an instantaneous show-stopper. With a sweet and savory start and spicy finish, you’ll never have to eat anything else again.
• The Godfather (Spicy Beef and Pork) — After slow cooking for six hours, the oh-so-good spiciness seeps into every ounce of the chili.
• The Mindful Eater (Veggie/Vegan) — You’ll never go wrong with Revival’s famous three-bean chili. Who needs meat with a chili this flavorful, robust, and healthy?
3. CHOOSE YOUR TOPPINGS (UP TO 3):
+ Go beyond the bowl with a small serving of any base or a small serving of any chili. Or spice it up with a chili dog, chili fries, or a chili sloppy joe. (Cheese and other toppings for these three are optional, at a price.)