Perrie Wilkof next to the door of her bakery and café Dough Mama, on Jan. 25. Credit: Tristan Relet-Werkmeister

It was a post on Instagram that put Perrie Wilkof in action.

The image was from Cellar Door Provisions, a restaurant in Chicago that was offering free food for federal workers impacted by the government shutdown. The next morning, Wilkof went to her restaurant Dough Mama in Clintonville, cut a yellow sheet of paper into a circle and wrote five words on it with a black marker: “FREE BRUNCH for Federal Employees!”

Within two weeks, a photo of the yellow sheet had 2,100 likes on social media and caught the attention of customers.

For Wilkof, the act was her opportunity to take a humanitarian and political stance through her small pie business during the government shutdown.

“It’s easy to think that [business and generosity] don’t fit together,” Wilkof said. “But if I can afford to [help], I’m gonna do that.”

Wilkof grew up an only child with parents committed to giving back to their community.

When she started her own pie business in 2015, she said her mind was conflicted between the notion of running a business and giving back to the community.

In 2015, generosity from friends and unknown backers enabled Wilkof to raise $15,000 and get her restaurant project off the ground, which compelled her even more to want to give back to her community.

On Jan. 11, when Wilkof and her fiance saw the launch of the free food campaign for federal workers in the Windy City on Instagram, she immediately thought it was an idea she wanted to emulate.

“She came in that morning and said, ‘I think we should do this,’ kind of unprompted,” Dough Mama employee Anna Morey said. “She wasn’t doing it to be trendy, just because it was a really good idea.”

Since then, about 35 federal workers have had breakfast or lunch for free.

“Most of them are sad,” Wilkof said. “Usually, they kind of have a sense of humor about it, but you can tell it’s a struggle.”

Wilkof said she even offered food to one woman who had recently given birth. She had not been paid in weeks and was appreciative of the free brunch. Many customers — who aren’t federal workers — told her it gave them hope that people care.

“Especially for a small business, being willing to dish out some food at no expense for people affected, that’s very selfless,” customer Leah Svoboda said.

Wilkof said she would have helped federal workers as long as she could.

Wilkof has consistently used her pie-baking skills to channel political activity. She is a strong advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ community and feminist movements. During the 2018 elections, she supported the congressional candidacy of Democrat Danny O’Connor by serving pies at one of his rallies and giving proceeds to his campaign.

Wilkof admitted that not everyone supports her efforts, as she received some hateful comments. But she said she can handle it, noting that “there’s always gonna be some haters. That’s OK.”

“There’s no better way … to protest anything than to be giving in some way,” Wilkof said.