DeKALB – Before the sun even rises on a Friday morning in DeKalb, a single light shines from a floor lamp in the kitchen of the Common Grounds Cafe.
There may not be enough space in the kitchen for a team of chefs, but right now it’s more than enough room for one. All alone is Dale Brown, a graduate student and former NIU football player, preparing cinnamon rolls next to a small oven.
“It’s kind of fulfilling,” Brown said while preparing his first of a few orders that day. “It’s something I like to do, and I get to work my own schedule.”
Brown graduated with a major in Management, as well as Hospitality and Tourism Management in the spring of 2019. Brown now runs Dale’s Homemade Cinnamon Rolls while attending graduate school at NIU for digital marketing, selling small orders for $7 and large orders for $14.
While Brown keeps his recipe a secret, the cats already out of the bag on the small business he started out of a suitcase in high school. Brown made and served 200 rolls at President Lisa Freeman’s State of The University Address in October.
Brown was born and raised in Kansas City. He learned to cook at a young age as a part of a household that relied on family effort to get work done.
“Cooking was a big deal in our house,” Brown said. “You kind of had to hold your own. It’s not just Mom who cooks. I’ll cook, my dad would cook, my little sister would cook. Everyone helped around the house and I kind of liked it.”
It was in his early days that Brown started to bake, and in turn, make cinnamon rolls. Brown said before he was selling them, he was catching the attention of his family at holiday gatherings.
“The first time I made the cinnamon rolls, I was eight years old,” Brown said. “I made something for Thanksgiving that was a mix of cookies, ice creams and brownies. I wanted to make something serious. So I brought those to the table and nobody thought anything of it until they had them.”
Brown sold them in high school for a while before coming to NIU where he started his collegiate-football career as an offensive lineman. Adjustments, naturally, had to be made by Brown at the start of college, but he still continued to cook and improve both on the field and in the kitchen.
“It was tough for a while, because I wasn’t used to budgeting and grocery shopping,” Brown said. “During the season, I would eat out a lot. I ate out a lot one year because we had night practices. During the offseason is when I did the majority of my cooking and tried to maintain a somewhat healthy diet.”
Brown, who converted to tight end in his last season, played in 39 career games for NIU before graduating. Brown’s contributions to his team extended past the football lines in the offseason. The Huskie helped prepare an Easter Day dinner for those on the team who couldn’t be with their families for the holiday.
Brown wasn’t just helping his teammates as he also inspired them to help a small business in the community.
Jeff Foster, the owner of the Common Grounds Cafe, first met Brown two years ago when Brown visited his shop. The cafe was on the west side of Lincoln Highway.
When time came for the business to move across the street, Foster needed help.
“When we had to leave our location, he was checking in with me, always friendly and wanting to help out whenever he could,” Foster said. “When we began the move, I put up a Facebook post looking for volunteers for the move, and he said he’d come down with him and some friends from the football team, which was very helpful.”
In the spring after his final season of football, Brown visited San Francisco and admittedly “spent a little too much money.” His friend had an idea of how he could make some.
“[My friend] kind of sparked my entrepreneurial spirit,” Brown said. “He said ‘Are you getting paid?’ I said no and he said, ‘Why don’t you try selling some cinnamon rolls?’”
The business Brown ran in high school was back up and running, at first out of his apartment. Looking to have more space and better equipment, Brown approached Foster about doing some work from his kitchen, and Foster agreed.
Helping out aspiring businesses like Brown’s was something Foster didn’t expect when he opened the cafe, originally to help raise funds to fight human trafficking.
“I didn’t come into this thinking as much of a business as much as a community space,” Foster said. “One of the things we wanted to impact was the arts… it caught me off guard that we could have an impact on someone like Dale who’s trying to get into business, especially with food.”
Brown has catered to a variety of events in DeKalb, including wine tasting ventures and NIU events. Chad Glover, the Director of JOBS Plus at NIU, has mentioned how popular the cinnamon rolls have become after Brown catered for a JOBS Plus event at the NIU Library on Nov. 12.
“When you have an event and Dale’s Rolls arrive, the lines form fast,” Glover said in a tweet featuring event attendees lined up to try the treats themselves.
The end goal for Brown is just to help support himself while going to school for the time being, but hasn’t ruled out his business growing into something more if the chance presents itself.
“Right now, I’m just using this to make myself some extra money,” Brown said. “But if I can see an opportunity for it to grow, I might just take it.”