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December 2019

Leaders Bank Helps Chicago Start-up Moon Meals Eclipse Expectations

Moon Meals 2adjust

Nicholl Doggett, assistant vice president of mortgage lending at Oak Brook-based Leaders Bank, poses with Chicago-based Moon Meals’ founder and CEO LaForce Baker.


When LaForce Baker, 30, founder of Chicago start-up Moon Meals, needed financing to promote his food product, he turned to Oak Brook-based Leaders Bank. In July, Leaders Bank furnished the company a loan through its Small Business Microloan Program. “The Leaders loan was a working capital loan that . . . enabled us to appear at trade shows, which can be rather costly,” Baker says.

At the time, Moon Meals’ all-vegan grab-and-go Fiesta Wraps were already sold in deli sections of all 189 Jewel supermarkets The company’s goals are even more ambitious – and national in scope. Before revealing them, let’s trace the humble origins of this innovative food manufacturer.


Plant-based pioneer

Growing up in a “food desert” on Chicago’s South Side, Baker discovered at around age 15 he could prepare healthy vegan versions of his grandmother’s tasty specialties. Several years later, as a late-night food industry worker, he found few healthy options. He began selling his healthy items to people working late evenings, spawning the name Moon Meals.

“I started wholesaling to mom-and-pop coffee shops, and got it up to 10 shops,” he recalls. “From there, I had the data to go to my first major retailer, Jewel.”

 Jewel opted to give Moon Meals a tryout in three Chicagoland supermarkets. The product sold well, leading Jewel to roll it out to all locations. “We offer the Fiesta Wrap, which retails for $6.99,” Baker says. “It has a meaty-cheesy, spicy profile, but it’s all vegan. Featuring our own meat alternative, it offers 22 grams of protein.”


Accelerating growth

Baker is a past participant in Family Farms’ Good Food Accelerator. This educational program trains people to enter food manufacturing, connecting them to wholesalers and distributors. Leaders Bank is a corporate participant in the program.

“That’s where we met LaForce, at the most recent class in the spring of 2019,” recalls Nicholl Doggett, Leaders Bank assistant vice president of mortgage lending.

Backed by a Leaders Bank Microloan, Moon Meals is on its way. Says Baker: “The big dream is over the next two years, to be in at least 3,000 locations nationwide, with four items: Fiesta Wraps and three new products under development.” 


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What R&D Extension and Apprenticeship Tax Credit Means for Illinois

Manufacturers face substantial expense when they invest in research and development progra 19-LB-560 Blog photo2ms.

Yet it’s a necessary cost in
introducing new and improved products. Training new employees represents another costly venture for manufacturers. In an era marked by a steadily shrinking labor force, however, it is an expense that must be borne.

Illinois-based manufacturers confronting the harsh reality of these daunting expenses were cheered in May, during the final week of the 101st Illinois General Assembly. That's when the legislature passed, and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law, the Research & Development Extension and Apprenticeship Tax Credit.

The new law will extend the sunset date on the Research & Development (R&D) Tax Credit for an additional five years, from tax year 2022 to tax year 2027. The law’s second component establishes a new apprenticeship tax credit, inte
nded to provide a much-needed tax break to manufacturers investing in their current and future workforce.


R&D Extension

“Rationale for extending the tax credit was to bring more stability to any entity involved in research and development activities in Illinois,” says Jim Nelson, vice president, education and workforce policy, with the Oak Brook-based Illinois Manufacturers Association (IMA). The final bill, SB 1591, passed both the Illinois House and Senate unanimously. Passage is an indication legislators recognize R&D helps expand work activities and supports continuation of current employment levels, he adds.

19-LB-560 Blog photo1The extension of the R&D tax credit means manufacturers will be able to reclaim a portion of the dollars they have expended on research and development activities to ensure new and improved products continue to come to market, Nelson says. “It's really expensive for manufacturers to engage in R&D activities because there's no separate revenue source for those activities,” he reports.

“It takes a lot of planning, and the R&D tax credit takes some of the burden of those activities off manufacturers' shoulders.”

The R&D credit is often viewed as among the more complicated credits available to manufacturers, Nelson says. But multiple studies have confirmed when the credit is available to offset the costs of new product development, 80 cents of every dollar spent on R&D is spent by manufacturers. “The legislation will promote new product development by Illinois manufacturers well into the next decade.”


New Apprenticeship Tax Credit

Slated to go into effect with the start of the new tax year on January 1, 2020, the new apprenticeship tax credit will allow manufacturers that participate in registered apprenticeship programs to claim a tax credit against funds spent on Related Technical Instruction (RTI) for their apprentices, Nelson explains.

Customarily, RTI is provided by community colleges. This tax credit will offset some of the cost of the tuition paid by the employer for the RTI.

Apprenticeships are a blend of on-the-job training that is aligned to RTI. “There's an on-the-job training component that features skills, and the RTI teaches the theories behind the skills,” Nelson says. “Not only would apprentices learn pneumatic or electrical engineering in an on-the-job setting, but they would absorb the Related Technical Instruction in the community college setting. The two are provided simultaneously. Most apprenticeships operate with three days on the job, two days in the classroom. The classroom instruction is immediately put into practice on the job.”

Manufacturers are justifiably concerned about training expense, because each registered apprentice can cost an employer between $25,000 and $35,000 a year, including salaries, benefits and lost production time. The new law permits Illinois employers to claim a $3,500 income tax credit to help offset the educational costs of an apprentice that the employer has paid to a community college on behalf of its apprentice.  

“Once employers recognized they were already spending significant dollars in their existing employee training, they understood the value of the apprenticeship programs,” Nelson says. “Sometimes, apprenticeships are viewed as a ‘shiny new bauble’ since they had not been used as a workforce model since the 1950s. However, more and more employers are looking to registered apprenticeship as a means of improving their talent pipeline at a time when the total labor force is shrinking, not only in Illinois but nationally.”

The establishment of the new apprenticeship tax credit, he adds, is well timed given the Prairie State is projected to have 335,000 fewer workers by 2025 than it does today.

“We thank the Governor for his support of the manufacturing sector,” says IMA President and CEO Mark Denzler, “and further applaud his commitment to workforce development.”


Located at 2001 York Road in Oak Brook, Leaders Bank is a premier commercial bank catering to private business owners, their families and other entrepreneurs. Leaders Bank offers a full spectrum of traditional and customized banking services, Internet-based banking, and online bill payment. To contact Leaders Bank, call (630) 572-5323 or visit