It’s been an emotional year for Delta co-owner Eldridge Williams. At the onset of the pandemic, Williams’ Wicker Park restaurant and bar switched to carryout as the state banned indoor dining. Just when the crew grew accustomed to takeout, Williams closed the Delta after a disagreement with an investor over the restaurant’s Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan. That led to a lawsuit that left the future of the restaurant in doubt. But clearer heads prevailed, and Williams dropped the lawsuit with the promise of reopening this summer.
The Delta reopens Tuesday and Williams and his team have recommitted themselves by making improvements to the space. They’ve got a new chef with a tweaked menu. Williams is hyped to reopen after overcoming the year’s challenges: “Let’s go!” he says.
A new enclosed back patio is the highlight. Williams hopes the space will keep the Delta humming through the winter. Three space heaters hang overhead and there’s enough space for 30 to safely spread out. He’s brought on a new chef — Levi Kensey. Williams has known him for years. Kensey was a bartender at the Underground on Hubbard Street while Williams was a manager at the River North nightclub. The Underground is one of Williams’ many stops. He’s also worked at several well-known Chicago establishments, including Girl & the Goat in West Loop.
Wicker Park was also one of the neighborhoods affected by looters who vandalized properties after the Black Lives Matter protests. While the Delta wasn’t damaged, the events had an effect on Williams, who is running a rare Black-owned restaurant in the neighborhood. But the support this summer has been strong. Supporting Black businesses is not a fleeting phase. He has advise for other Black entrepreneurs.
“We don’t let up, don’t get quiet — be sincere,” Williams says. “Be aggressively sincere about your efforts; don’t be embarrassed to speak up even it seems like things are dying down.”
Williams understands the landscape of Chicago’s restaurant industry, and the city’s racial segregation. He’s not surprised by stories, such as those shared by Malcolm Hilliard. Hilliard, a Black chef who now works at LondonHouse, details the racism he’s endured in a Tribune story published last week. Entering mostly white spaces are challenging for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color).
“I looked around and saw my coworkers,” Williams recalls. “There’s not many people in this space that look like me. I’m like a unicorn.”
With the Delta, which opened three years ago, Williams and his crew created a welcoming place that combines hospitality, music, and food. It sounds like a simple formula, but its resonated in unexpected ways. Williams says some Black customers have cried in front of him, telling him the food reminds them of how their mother cooked.
Williams commutes from Hyde Park to Wicker Park. Williams says he could have opened the Delta on the South Side and serve the same exact food in the same exact space, but it wouldn’t have the same impact as opening on the North Side, which has a smaller Black population. He wanted the challenge of filling a void: “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Williams says.
There’s also the importance of developing a strong network for Black members of the service industry. Keeping those connections is how he found his new chef in Kensey. Kensey will keep the majority of the items, including the hot tamales. Williams is also allowing Kensey to show off new recipes. For example, the fried chicken will be tweaked. New items include smoked pork belly ends over fried rice and beef brisket egg rolls. As office workers remain working from home, there’s a bigger market for lunch at neighborhood restaurants. The Delta, for the first time, is also launching weekday lunch.
Williams received more good news as he’s opened a burger-centric spinoff (Lil’ Delta) inside the new Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall on the West Side. The deal came together quickly, Williams says. He feels this is the big break that he needs — Dr. Murphy’s runs food halls in other cities and plans to open new ones. Ownership’s already shown interest in adding Lil’ Delta to vendor lineups at future locations. But Williams isn’t forgetting about Chicago. He wants to open more restaurants in a location where he won’t have to commute: “It’s got to be on the South Side,” he says.
Chicago’s new food halls haven’t been welcoming to Black chefs and vendors. The current lineups (announced last week) for Politan Row and Time Out Market lack Black chefs. All three chefs at One Eleven Food Hall in Pullman are Black, while Chicago’s French Market have included Black-owned businesses like Soul Vegetarian.
So how did Williams secure such a rare opportunity for a Black restaurant owner? Folks in charge have to show leadership and demonstrate diversity matters.
“It starts with the people who have the power and the control to put people in these spaces,” he says.