It was a dare that brought Javon Nicholas, founder and president of Egg Rolls Etc.™, to Taiwan, and the kindness of her new community that inspired her to start a company focused on comfort foods that meld and celebrate cultures.
It was 2010 and a then-29-year-old Nicholas had just lost her mom, with whom she was very close. Her friends knew that she needed to get outside her comfort zone to help her heal. They “dared” her to apply to a two-year language program in Taiwan. Nicholas took the dare, applied, and was accepted.
“I didn’t speak any Mandarin, so when the program asked me where I wanted to go, I just closed my eyes and pointed at the map,” said the Chicago native, who has participated in several of The Polsky Center’s small business education programs.
She had selected Kaohsiung City, in the southern part of the country. She lived in a hostel and became close with the woman who ran the lodgings. The hostel owner would often cook for Nicholas and introduced the newcomer to the wider community. She even helped Nicholas receive her Chinese given name, Chow On, which means “skillful” and “peace.”
“Being there really helped restore my faith in God and humanity,” Nicholas said. “I wanted to share all those fuzzy feelings and comforting memories back home in Chicago in the form of food. That’s how my product line of Egg Rolls Etc. was born.”
Flavors of Home, Inspired by Asia
Egg Rolls Etc. currently offers seven flavors of egg rolls and rangoons, which can be air fried, deep fried, or baked. Nicholas named the first flavor she developed, a collard greens and smoked turkey egg roll, “Gert” in honor of her grandma. It is her most popular product.
Other egg roll flavors include buffalo chicken, taco ole, plant-based jerk cabbage, plant-based Philly cheesesteak, and Aunt Kathy’s peach cobbler, named after Nicholas’ aunt. They also produce a salmon, spinach, and cheese rangoon.
The company sells its products in more than a dozen grocery stores across Chicago and via an online platform called Shef, where the food is cooked, cooled and delivered to your door. Some local catering companies and restaurants carry the product line as well.
Nicholas has adopted an animated character sketched by her husband as her logo. She named the character “Chow On™” after her own given Chinese name. The character graces all of the packaging and branding for the company, including a line of merchandise. Nicholas even turned the logo into a puppet that she uses during grocery store demos and connecting with the community.
“She’s cute and appreciated, and really helps propel our brand,” said Nicholas, named a 2022 Influential Woman in Food by Food Processing magazine.
A veteran of the food industry
Nicholas’ career in the food industry started at a young age. She was a full-time nutritionist at age 19, the food service director for a special needs living center at 21, and a corporate restaurant manager at 23. She also ran a catering business on the side, which served as the exclusive caterer for the Archdiocese of Chicago and the downtown medical district.
This background came into play as she developed the concept for her line of frozen foods. Nicholas introduced her egg rolls through her catering business, which she resurrected when she returned to Chicago in 2012. They proved very popular, culminating in being voted “Best of the Taste” at the 2019 Taste of Chicago.
Nicholas enrolled in entrepreneurship and small business programs as she built her business. The courses she took at the Polsky Center were instrumental in helping her realize the potential of her products, she said.
“[The] Polsky [Center] really helped me see how profitable the numbers were. The students were able to timestamp my product as the first of its kind in the frozen CPG arena on a national level. They validated that it was a financially sound business,” she said. “Companies like General Mills and Heinz have departments dedicated to doing this. As a small business, [the] Polsky [Center] became that department for me. It was invaluable.”
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
Part of Egg Rolls Etc.’s mission is to give back. The company has partnered with a number of community organizations that promote self love, cultural sensitivity, and/or entrepreneurship. Nicholas has also created a program, called “It’s What’s Inside That Counts,” that teaches these values to Chicago-area youth.
Nicholas, recently elected to the advisory board for the Illinois Restaurant Association, has also published a cookbook, Legacy Kitchen 1219: An inheritance of recipes from my family to yours, which is available on Amazon, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble. And she serves as a food coach for Sunshine Enterprises, an organization that helps small businesses in Chicago.
Looking to the future, Nicholas plans to continue to scale Egg Rolls Etc., both in terms of number of retail outlets and products, with a focus on producing premium, high-quality comfort foods.
“I feel like I have an emotional exchange with my clients through food,” she said. “It makes me proud that so many people enjoy my product, and I think I’ve made my ancestors proud, too.”
Follow Egg Rolls Etc. on Instagram at @egg_rolls_etc_, Facebook at @egg-rolls-etc, and Twitter at @etc_egg.