January 1, 2020, will be a green-letter day in Illinois when residents and visitors can purchase recreational marijuana legally for the first time. Weed-themed sandwich chain Cheba Hut plans to be there with plenty of pot puns, a full bar, and a wide-ranging selection of “toasted” subs. The Arizona-based company has signed two three-unit franchise deals in Chicago, and the first is slated to open by the end of 2019.
The herb itself won’t be available in the restaurants, but leadership hopes to help elevate customers’ pot experiences. Franchisees Chris Custer and Lance Frericks are pursuing negotiations for a Bucktown location at 1739 N. Milwaukee, right across from adored burger outpost Small Cheval. Another franchisee, Brian O’Kelly, is hoping to set up shop near the DePaul campus. Jennings isn’t a fan of terms like “chain” and “franchisee,” and sees the relationship as a partnership rather than a boss-employee dynamic.
Cheba Hut’s sandwiches come in three sizes: a 4-inch “nug,” an 8-inch “pinner,” and a 12-inch “blunt.” Menu options will include the popular “white widow” (grilled chicken, ranch, mushrooms, bacon, provolone) and the “magic mushroom” (portabella, pepper jack, teriyaki glaze, green peppers, pineapple). Founder Scott Jennings favors the “5-0” sub (smoked ham, Genoa salami, prosciutto, pepperoni, bacon, giardiniera, cheddar). “It’s all pig!” Jennings said, laughing.
The menu will also list smaller bites, termed “munchies,” like loaded “not’chos” (melted cheddar, jalapenos, red onion, black olives, Nacho Cheese Doritos, ranch) and French onion soup. Diners (and stoners) with a sweet tooth can expect treats like marshmallow cereal bars and “goo balls” (Rice Krispies, peanut butter, honey, cocoa). Unlike most sub shops, Cheba Hut locations also feature full bars and a cocktail list packed with more weed jokes. Selections include the “dirty hippie” (Deep Eddy vodka, cucumber, lemonade) and the “gin n juice” (Seagram’s gin, orange juice, pineapple juice).
“We’re going to be hiring local artists to do the artwork in every location and we get to put different local beers on tap to make it our own,” said Custer. “[Cheba Hut] gives you the freedom to try and develop a couple of sandwiches and put them on your menu, which I love.” He and Frericks are planning a play on the classic Chicago hot dog or Italian beef sandwich.
A Nebraska native, Jennings founded Cheba Hut in 1998 when the concept was considered “a little risqué.” After graduating from Arizona State University, he described himself as an optimist and free-speech champion. “I smoked a lot of pot in college, I ate a lot of food, doing the things I was best at,” he said. “I’m a foodie at heart and wasn’t into the 8:00 to 5:00 world. I wanted to make people laugh a little bit. It’s also about freedom of speech — I can fly my flag, I can call my sandwiches whatever I want.”
Jennings said that Illinois’ pot laws won’t affect the way Cheba Hut is run in Chicago, “but it’ll have an impact on our grand opening party,” he joked. He’s watched the so-called green wave move across the country and was particularly struck by Governor Pritzker’s take on criminal records. “There’s a lot of people who have served time and commuting sentences is real deal stuff,” he said. “We’ve got the privilege to smoke now and a lot of people have had to pay for that.”
The legislation stipulates that the governor will pardon past possession convictions of up to 50 grams. Convictions or arrests will be stripped from the public record by the attorney general. An attorney can petition the court to vacate or expunge convictions for possession of 30 to 500 grams but the final decision lies with a judge, according to the Tribune.
Cheba Hut currently operates locations in Arizona, Colorado, California, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Oregon. Stay tuned for news as the first Chicago location progresses.