Finnie Haire, the founder of Haire’s Gulf Shrimp on the city’s South Side, has died of kidney failure, according to his wife. Haire first launched the iconic shrimp shack in the early 1980s out of a train caboose and is remembered as an charismatic entrepreneur with big dreams for his beloved brand. Haire, who died on January 26, was 80.
The restaurant, perched near the corner of 75th Street and Vincennes Avenue in Greater Grand Crossing, is the latest home for the nearly 40-year-old business. It’s a no-frills counter-service spot that’s sold fried shrimp by the bag (called “bomb bags”) to generations of local fans and visitors. They can also find cole slaw, fries, and spaghetti, but regulars know the real star: fresh and golden fried shrimp. The food made Haire a celebrity. According to an obituary, Haire was also the first Black food vendor at Comiskey Park, the home of the Chicago White Sox.
Haire’s Famous Gulf Shrimp was an instant hit when it opened nearly four decades ago.
“I would see people lined up at the door of the caboose at 83rd or 84th and Stoney Island,” Haire’s nephew, Michael Haire Baldwin says. “They talked to me because they didn’t know who I was [to Haire]... they started talking about ‘Boy, this taste sensation is so amazing — do you know this guy’s story?’ I was so elated.”
The shrimp also proved to be an aphrodisiac. After he met the woman who would become his wife (in 2014 at a funeral), Haire told her about his restaurant and invited her to come try his recipe after the service.
“Most men offer you chocolate,” Aisha Haire says. “He offered me shrimp and I became Mrs. Haire within a year.”
The youngest of 10 siblings, Finnie Haire was born in Arkansas and moved to Chicago with his family at age 9, according to his wife. A U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, he pursued various jobs after leaving the military, including as a barber and postal worker.
Haire’s mother, lovingly called “Big Mama” by family, passed the shrimp recipe down, says Haire’s nephew, Michael Haire Baldwin. He vividly recalls the day — back in the ‘70s — when his grandmother called the pair into her kitchen to teach them how to make fried shrimp. The story has since become treasured family lore.
“She said to us, ‘I’m going to make this recipe for you guys, and if you make this recipe, you will become very successful in business and in life,’” Baldwin says.
By the early 1980s, Haire began selling Big Mama’s fried shrimp out of a train car in Stoney Island. The business grew and eventually relocated to its current home at 7448 S. Vincennes Avenue.
Over the years, the restaurant’s reputation has remained strong: WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore in the New York Times wrote that Haire’s serves the best fried shrimp in Chicago. Chance the Rapper is also a fan of Haire’s, appearing on the restaurant’s Instagram feed on multiple occasions. Haire appeared in a photo spread featuring Chance in 2017 in an issue of Teen Vogue.
Haire was a fixture at the restaurant, greeting customers and going into the kitchen to point out what workers were doing wrong. Fans continue to beat a path to no-frills counter-service spot that features a painting of Malcom X, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a table, watched over by President Barack Obama. It’s hokey, he told Moore in 2017, but meaningful, as he wanted his community to know he was “standing for the cause.”
For Baldwin, his uncle’s story is one of devotion: “It’s taking one thing and doing it to the best of your utmost ability, and that’s what he did,” he says. “He was always a visionary with a lot of insight — a hard thinker.”
Over the past few years, uncle and nephew discussed expansion plans such as franchising and private label packaging, and Baldwin believes growth is still on the horizon. The legacies of both Haire and Big Mama are ones the family holds dear.
“Her recipe will forever live on — through him and through the gulf shrimp,” Haire’s sister, Mary, says. “If they taste the shrimp, they always come back for more.”
Finnie Haire is survived by his wife, five children, and more than 30 grandchildren. Visitation will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Harvey, about 22 miles south of Chicago.