Meet a Chicago pizza entrepreneur bringing jobs and 'vegan comfort food' to her Indiana hometown

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-house dining service at a vegan pizza restaurant in Chicago, it resulted in new business opportunities and revitalization in downtown Huntington.

Jennie Plasterer, who grew up in Huntington, owns the award-winning, plant-based pizza and comfort food restaurant, Kitchen 17 on Broadway in Chicago. When her restaurant closed for dine-in service at the onset of the pandemic, she and her team pivoted quickly from serving hot-and-ready pies to making packaged, frozen, deep-dish pizzas they could ship to customers stranded at home.
 
“We couldn’t have people come in and eat, so we had to get creative, and think how to best serve our customers,” Plasterer says.

Kitchen 17 is an award-winning, deep-dish, vegan pizza restaurant in Chicago.

After teasing the launch of their new frozen pizzas, Kitchen 17 was quickly overwhelmed by demand for their product. 

“We were making hundreds of pizzas a week with very little room to store them," Plasterer says.

This challenge presented her with an opportunity to reinvest in her hometown. As the frozen pizza side of her business grew, she decided to expand it in Huntington and contribute to the city's growth.

“I knew I had to move the operations to Huntington," Plasterer says. "I am emotionally attached to where I grew up, and it just feels right, coming home.” 

A vegan Jalapeno Popper pizza and Artichoke dip by Kitchen 17.

The timing was right, too. Plaster's sister and brother-in-law, Lorry Plasterer and Rick Amieva, who still live in Huntington, were looking for a place to grow their marketing firm, Smiley Face Media, as well as their mushroom farm. Together, the three purchased the old Huntington Herald-Press building at 7 N. Jefferson St. to house their ventures and serve the community in a variety of ways.

While Kitchen 17 will keep its restaurant in Chicago, its new location in the 25,000 square-foot Herald-Press building will house the company's headquarters, its frozen pizza plant, and Huntington's first plant-based restaurant and bar.

“Huntington needs a little more nightlife," Plasterer says. "A nice bar and restaurant could help a lot.” 

Jennie Plaster, right, with her sister, Lorry Plasterer, center, and brother-in-law, Rick Amieva, left, purchased the old Herald-Press building at 7 N. Jefferson St. in Huntington to grow their ventures.

The bar will be located in the building's former Newsroom and aptly named "The Newsroom." The building will also house Smiley Face Media, an urban rooftop farm, and rentable event space. The project is expected to be complete by the end of 2024 and create more than 60 new jobs in Northeast Indiana. Kitchen 17 invested more than $1 million in the project and will receive up to $565,000 in conditional tax credits based on its job-creation plans, courtesy of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

Once complete, Kitchen 17's Huntington plant will ship its frozen pizzas to grocery stores across the U.S. (including a special gluten-free deep-dish pizza). As the business grows, they want to expand into more varieties of frozen vegan comfort foods.

A Buffalo Chicken Burger by Kitchen 17.

This focus on "comfort food" specifically is what Plasterer hopes will win the hearts of more consumers in Indiana (and across the country), convincing them to rethink the stereotype that vegan food is "bland" or "just for those who want to be healthier.” Instead, since it was founded in 2013, Kitchen 17 has specialized in creating foods that are first-and-foremost delicious and approachable. It was recently named the No. 2 "Best Vegan Restaurant in the U.S." by VegOut Magazine.

“We really focus on bringing people food that they can enjoy eating," Plasterer says. “We are very careful not to say we are 'healthy.' That isn’t our goal. We want people of every lifestyle to enjoy comfort foods, no matter what they choose to be eating.”

A vegan pie by Kitchen 17.

Along with a focus on quality and sustainability in her food business, Plasterer and her sister are using sustainable practices in the building's renovation, too. They plan to restore the Herald-Press Building to its former glory, paying homage to its legacy, where their own grandfather worked for the local newspaper.

“It still has this beautiful ceiling, and we found out that there is even some walnut flooring that someone tried to hide," she says. "We plan to use all those details to bring back the history that the building holds.”  

Kitchen 17 and Smiley Face Media purchased the old Herald-Press building at 7 N. Jefferson St. in Huntington to house their ventures and serve the community in a variety of ways.

Plasterer's sister, Lorry, told WANE TV the exterior and rooftop of the building will eventually have outdoor dining and event spaces. Given the family’s history in Huntington, they feel a responsibility to contribute to its future.

“Our family has always done their best to improve this town and provide jobs to this town and keep things going in a positive direction here,” Lorry told WANE. “It would be kind of a shame if we chose a different spot other than Huntington to do this.”