Adam Leja, 30, of Hoffman Estates is founder of the organic lemon drink, Lemonesse, which is bottled in Geneva. It took a serious car accident involving a drunken driver to lead him to become an entrepreneur.
And by the way, the drink he created is nonalcoholic.
"The one thing I want to make sure I get across is not that I want people to think that I'm riding out a car accident that happened 10 years ago," Leja said. "I want people to know that just because you get knocked down or because things don't go your way doesn't mean you have to give up."
He said he started his drink company "on a bootstrapped budget" and he still does valet parking of cars at night to help pay the bills.
"It allows me to build the business during the day and make enough money to keep me a float at night," he said.
Also, a Kickstarter.com fundraising campaign could give his company the boost it needs. He aimed for $7,500 and got about $10,000 when the campaign ended last week. Those dollars may help him build the business nationwide, he said.
Currently, the drink is sold at Tsu Kasa in Vernon Hills, Ambrosia bakery in Barrington as well as the Chicago Cut Steakhouse, Trump Towers 16, Gene & Georgetti's and Joe Fish restaurants in Chicago. It comes in 375 mL glass bottles, or the size of a half-bottle of wine, and sells between $5 and $8 per bottle, depending on the restaurant.
He and his brother, Corey Leja, thought of the idea after frequently dining out with their family and seeing people drink water with lemon. There had been an ongoing question of where your lemon has been before it makes it's way into your water.
"I wanted to create a nonalcoholic beverage that had the same look and feel of an alcoholic beverage minus the alcohol. I want to give those that are not able to drink the same experience and ambience that comes with a fun cocktail and elegant glass of wine," he said.
And much of this started while he played baseball at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona, where he was speaking with professional scouts at the time. But a fateful drive to church that led to an accident with a drunken driver had changed his life, he said.
His older brother, Blake Leja had just returned home serving a stint n the Army in Iraq was driving while Adam was a passenger.
"I like to think that there were angels with us that night as we drove down Route 59 in West Chicago and headed to church. We never did make it to church, but the important part is we survived," Leja said.
They were following their parents' car that also included their younger brother and sister. The drunken driver just missed the rest of the family in front and then hit the two brothers.
"My dad watched us get hit in the rearview mirror," Leja said. "The drunken driver was literally drinking while driving. He had a half empty Pabst Blue Ribbon in the cup holder and five empties on the passenger floor board. He was out cold from the impact as a result of no air bags or seat belt."
Leja had an immediate operation to remove a piece of glass embedded in his hand. That same hand also had a wrist injury, but he was able to play ball during the 2004 season. He was then playing at Troy University in Troy, Ala., where he met my wife, Alison. But the wrist injury caught up to him.
"A metal plate and 5 screws later, I was never able to step on the field at Troy after two wrist operations," he said. "Initially, I opted for a 50/50 shot at a minimally invasive arthroscopic wrist operation with a 6-week recovery window. Of course, that surgery didn't work and I had to return back after that 6-week period for an operation that would take 6 months to recover. After months in rehab, it took me almost 2 years to fully recover and gain back all my strength that was lost. I still have issues with the wrist every once in a while and limited range of motion."
He said he never thought he would walk away from baseball, but felt he had no choice. He went to grad school at University of West Florida for exercise physiology and graduated in 2011. He thought he would help other athletes get back into playing shape so they could chase their athletic dream.
"It's funny how things happen in life and I truly feel that although one door closed another was opened," Leja said. "What's also funny is that I drive past the accident site every day now on my way to our bottling facility."
Marketing executive with spirt
Community Trust Credit Union marketing director Michelle Caldwell received the 2013 Spirit of Service Employee of the Year award from the Illinois Credit Union System at its 84th Annual Convention. She has held executive or board positions for many organizations, including Illinois Youth Involvement Council, the annual Illinois Credit Union Ladies golf outing, and Legislative Forum, and the Thomas W. Doig Chapter of Credit Unions. In addition she has taken an active role in Gurnee Days, the Exchange Club of Gurnee, and the Lake County, Gurnee and Grayslake chambers of commerce.
Pradel to be honored
Naperville Mayor A. George Pradel, a longtime proponent of local businesses, will receive the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce's Lifetime Achievement Award. The chamber presents this award annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to the community through their business, service, philanthropy. He'll be honored at the chamber's Small Business of the Year Awards on May 30.
Raymond Tide, a Principal at Wiss, Janney, Elstner, Associates and an Arlington Heights resident, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Steel Construction. ... Scott Hays has been named vice president of operations for Jewel-Osco in Itasca.
Tom Lavins of Hinsdale said his company, Exclusive Windows Inc. in Willowbrook, was recognized with the national "Top Percent Growth" award at the Andersen Windows company rally in Hollywood, Fla. ... Tim Shanahan of Libertyville has been named chief operating officer of RBS Citizens Commercial Finance Group in Chicago.
North Aurora resident Joanna VanLear received the Harold F. Schrage Field Instructor of the Year award at Aurora University. ... Attorney Staci A. Williamson of Glen Ellyn has joined the Goldberg Segalla law firm in its Chicago office.
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