From potatoes to policies

Managing risk in Chicago's booming bar scene

From potatoes to policies

Insurance News


Spencer Friedman’s journey into the insurance industry is as unconventional as it is fascinating. Born and raised in Chicago, he developed an early love for the city’s unique hospitality culture.

“I grew up in Chicago fascinated by the bar and restaurant scene,” he told Insurance Business. “Most kids want to be professional athletes or astronauts - I wanted to be a figure in the Chicago bar and restaurant scene for any reason.”

And this love of foodie culture followed Friedman (pictured) into his post-college years where he was buying and selling age old commodities – onions and potatoes.

“I was buying produce from farmers and selling them to restaurant owners. And then, in 2020, COVID comes about. Owners were struggling and having to adapt to accommodate the changing food service landscape – such as offering cocktails to go, or selling raw ingredients and having people cook at home.”

He felt the need for a shift, looking for a business model that was more about relationships rather than transactions. Friedman seized the moment, recognizing an opportunity to be the go-to insurance guy for bars and restaurants in Chicago.

“I got my insurance license, started reaching out to my old connections from my produce days and began to realize that a lot of bar and restaurant owners faced the same insurance-related struggles,” Friedman explained. Instead of following the traditional broker path, he adopted a consultative approach. His focus? On his clients’ businesses and unique problems that he knew he could solve.

And so, equipped with a deep understanding of the challenges that bars and restaurants face, Friedman wants to ensure his clients are adequately insured. Especially considering the recent changes in their operations.

“I start my process with a consultative review of a potential client’s  insurance program to understand what coverages they currently have in place,” said Friedman. Now, as a risk management consultant at Alera Group, his vision has expanded way beyond his Chicago roots.

“We’re starting to build out beyond the Chicagoland area. I just started working with my first client in Georgia,” he said. “I have clients in Indiana and the rest of the Midwest, and we’re trying to go as national as possible.”

Alera Group is an independent insurance firm that aims to transform the client experience by providing a greater depth and breadth of resources and innovative thinking. And while Alera Group is something of an icon in the Chicago scene, the current market doesn’t make it easy. Speaking to Insurance Business, Friedman explained that many restaurants have had to pivot to stay afloat in the current market – which in itself has created issues.

“Changes included expanding delivery services, outdoor dining, offering to-go cocktails and even technological advancements being implemented,” he said. “As these operations start to change, insurance needs to start to change.”

Imagine this scenario: a restaurant decides to offer delivery services, with their staff using personal vehicles. If the restaurant forgets to inform their insurance broker or carrier about this shift and they lack the necessary coverage, there’s an issue. As Friedman observed: “these owners of restaurants are moving and shaking and adapting through COVID – they’re not always thinking about telling their insurance broker that they started doing this.”

His solution? Be present, observant, and most importantly proactive.

“I visit my clients’ establishments often, and when I’m having a drink or having dinner, I’m observing. ‘Oh, someone just picked up a cocktail to go? They didn’t tell me they’re doing that’,” he noticed on one such visit.

In this fast-paced environment, Spencer believes that old practices won’t suffice. Insurance professionals need to dig deeper, understand businesses inside-out, and ensure their policies align with the new realities.

“When I take over someone’s program, I need to really look at what they’re doing and make sure that all of the changes are covered by their insurance program,” he said.

Changes aside, what’s next for someone so deeply immersed in the bar and restaurant sector? Well, Friedman’s eyeing up the broader entertainment sector.

“That’s music venues, smaller boutique hotels - pretty much anywhere that people are gathering in a social setting,” he said. “We’re definitely trying to expand nationally - and my goal is to start working with restaurants in all 50 states.”

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