While restaurateurs in Chicago lament the sudden influx of high-profile shutters, there are areas around the city, especially in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, that would benefit from a little attention. Coinciding with Black History Month, a new website — Black Food & Beverage — was launched to shine some spotlight on those neighborhoods as well as showcase successful Black members of the industry from all across the city working in fine dining, fast casual, and other sectors.
Angela Burke, a marketing professional who’s worked with clients including Baderbrau and Lawrence Fish and Shrimp, called the website a “passion project.” The site so far features bios on nine African Americans in the industry. Christopher Harris, sommelier at Michelin-starred Entente in Lakeview, is among the subjects.
Chicago has a segregation problem, and Harris said it’s sometimes amusing explaining what he does to friends and family on the South Side where he grew up, in the Roseland neighborhood. Knowing about fancy wines and spirits isn’t something he grew up romanticizing about, and explaining there are career opportunities in the restaurant world for African Americans is sometimes hard.
Harris also faces unique challenges at work. His resume includes time at reputable restaurants including Vie, Graham Elliot Bistro, Grace, and Smyth. When he wears his sommelier lapel pin, the mostly white customers don’t doubt his expertise in wines and spirits. But when he’s not wearing it, some diners struggle with accepting Harris’ acumen.
One way to combat that is to be more vocal, including using social media: “It’s something that I’m working on myself,” Harris said. “It’s a way to get your face out there.”
Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery, agrees with Harris about speaking up. Hart opened her first bakery in 2004 in Chatham. The city recognized her success and connected with her so she could open a Navy Pier location which debuted in November 2016. She’s working on a third location set to open in the fall in Austin at 4800 W. Chicago Avenue.
Hart wants that location to include grab-and-go sandwiches and soups. It’s near public transportation and could really fill a niche for customers. Many times neighborhoods are bombarded with fast-food options. She’s also trying to partner with likeminded business, such as Turkey Chop Gourmet Grill. Hart is working with the Greater Chatham Initiative, a neighborhood group that’s working on a map showing locals where to find quality, healthy food alternatives. While it’s easy to be discouraged, Hart won’t stop trying to improve her community. African American would-be restaurateurs don’t have as many resources — including funding — available to them.
“We’ve got some more failure in front of us until we to success, but we can’t be afraid to try,” she said.
Efforts extend beyond from those featured on Black Food & Beverage. Last year, Evelyn’s Food Love opened near Washington Park at 5522 S. State Street. Shelton is a Kendall College grad, and brings with experience managing healthcare food service, and years as a personal chef. She believes her business — serving fresh produce, shrimp and crawfish, lobsters tails — can be successful. After all, Doug Sohn and Hot Doug’s “made a fortune selling hot dogs.” She secured funding for her project through LISC Chicago.
“So we have items on our menu that our exceptionally affordable,” Shelton said. “This is the kind of community that will appreciate a Southern-cooked meal. We’re not a soul food restaurant. We will do soul food, typically on Sundays, and Sundays are our busiest day...We may have to rethink that and open a soul food restaurant eventually.”
Another subject of the website, Lamar Moore, recently joined Currency Exchange Cafe, a community-minded restaurant in Garfield Park. As executive chef, he’s helping to revamp the menu. He’s using it as an incubator to train cooks and to connect them with restaurants looking for kitchen staff. The industry often complaints about the difficulty in hiring and finding cooks. About 85 percent of the restaurant’s staff comes from a six-mile radius, Moore said. It’s through the Culinary Business Incubator.
He’s devoted most of his career in finding opportunities for African Americans, including serving as a mentor. He’s also partnered with Mariano’s, as the local grocer is investing more in communities. Mariano’s Bronzeville store has had a huge impact on the neighborhood, he said, giving local residents access to more food. Moore is also spending a lot of time in Gary, Indiana at ArtHouse: Social Kitchen to help residents there. Another charity he’s connected with is Space Fund.
“It’s important I bring someone through with me,” Moore said. “In this industry we just get so self absorbed.”