DOWNTOWN — At only 25, Park Millennium resident Israel Wagner is already a serial entrepreneur.
Now in his junior year studying finance at Roosevelt University, Wagner has made a habit of skipping the usual crop of summer internships and part-time jobs, focusing instead on starting new businesses.
"During the school year, I do a lot of investing in the markets, and then depending on how I did the previous year, my parents will fund me as well," Wagner said outside a small hut on the Chicago Riverwalk near Wacker and Columbus drives that houses his latest enterprise: a juice bar called Tree of Life, h.
The 11-person staff opened the eatery's doors June 11, but Wagner had them working weeks before on a menu catering to Downtown residents' tastes.
"We've been going into buildings in the area, handing out samples, trying new combinations to make sure we get things exactly right," he said.
On Thursday, Tree of Life unveiled its full food menu, including branded vegan treats Wagner developed with his mother, a former chef who now works at Northwestern and Mercy hospitals.
The packaged snacks and meals, which will be stocked at area Whole Foods and suburban Sun Rise groceries by July, include "premade stuff like vegan sushi and different desserts like cheesecake, brownies, cookies, things like that."
Wagner is a lifelong vegan who moved to the U.S. from Tel Aviv in 1997. He says there's "a stigma that if it's vegetarian or vegan, it has to taste bad."
"I'm basically trying to remove that stigma," he said.
He's also "trying to score free juice for the rest of my life," the self-described health nut joked Tuesday, explaining why his latest enterprise is the small juice hut steps from his apartment.
Wagner hopes to do a lot with the small space that previously housed a massage parlor, and was home to another juice bar years before that.
He plans to build out the makeshift porch into a brick patio with bistro tables lining the riverfront, where he's already hung a hammock that gets regular use from customers.
Wagner has had a host of projects in the past, including a limousine company that operates in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Montreal. Last summer, he launched a fleet of ice cream carts in the Loop, which he hopes to revisit with more success this summer in parks and beaches.
"We're in the process of obtaining space for a Tree of Life cafe where we can offer more food products in 233 N. Michigan Ave.," he said.
Nothing's been signed yet, but Wagner, ever-confident, said, "We'll be there Sept. 1."