Mark Doyle was dismayed in 2011 when he returned to Chicago after spending a year working with an Army task force in Afghanistan. In his eyes, the city and the world at large had forgotten about its veterans leaving many of them to go homeless while suicide rates skyrocketed.
“This was 10 years after 9/11 and we already were involved in two wars,” Doyle says. “You started to see the manifestations of that with homelessness and suicide. I knew I had to do something.”
That’s why he opened a business, Rags of Honor, that would lead to Veteran Roasters, a coffee maker that hires people without homes and at-risk veterans while helping them find subsidized housing. Veterans used Passion House Coffee Roasters’ Garfield Park facility to get its business off the ground and has been roasting coffee there since 2017. Passion House founder Josh Millman is a believer in Doyle’s mission: “We do all the roasting for them, we teach the vets everything coffee, we are two companies functioning under one roof,” Millman says. “We are like family.”
Doyle eventually expanded further with RNR Brews, partnering with Haymarket Brewery to make former Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon’s German lager, Try Not to Suck: “We’re trying to get men and women who served their country out of shelters, out of their cars, off the streets, and back into the life that they deserve,” says Doyle.
Now, Doyle is bringing his operations to Pullman and the far South Side with a roastery, brewpub, and cafe. Doyle is partnering with community development group Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) to build a two-story restaurant with a rooftop terrace and skyline views. It will include seating for 75 to 100 customers as well as a drive-thru. The restaurant is slated to break ground next year with an opening date in 2024.
Doyle adds that he’s unsure if he’ll continue operations in Garfield Park. The Pullman project is expected to create 55 to 65 jobs for homeless veterans who have the opportunity to live in a nearby veteran housing facility planned for the Pullman and Roseland area. The site, off the Bishop Ford Expressway, isn’t too far away from a pair of brewpubs to the west. Open Outcry and Horse Thief Hollow are both about 15-minute drives. Those two serve elevated bar food, which is also the plan for Veterans. For the beer, Veterans is again partnering with Haymarket which has brewpubs in West Loop and Bridgman, Michigan.
In the background of all this are long-promised initiatives from the city of Chicago dating back to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure to revitalize the once-thriving Pullman. The neighborhood has been slowly bleeding its businesses and people over the years. First, after the Pullman Car Company closed its factory in 1955, and then again in 2006 when the Ryerson Steel plant closed.
The decades of divestment and population loss resulted in an economic and cultural drain that has only recently begun to be plugged up. Ninth Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, whose district includes Pullman, says businesses like Veteran Roasters not only have the opportunity to impact the lives of Chicago’s homeless, but also those in the surrounding neighborhood.
“I saw the community take the downturn when the steel mills and businesses left. I saw the void. We want to change that,” Beale says. “That’s why Veteran Roasters will be a huge added amenity to what we’re already doing in the area. This program is definitely going to be a great addition to what we’re accomplishing in Pullman.”
Veteran Roasters will join a growing group of businesses on the block that includes the full-service Lexington Betty Smokehouse, which converted from One Eleven Food Hall before the hall shut down in March after struggling amid the pandemic. CNI was also behind that project. The only other food options in the area are national chains Culver’s and Potbelly.
Doyle likes a challenge and is determined to bring great food, coffee, and beer to Pullman.
“This is something that will help grow a community,” Doyle says. “It’s a risk, but if we look back in five years and say we have 55 to 65 men and women working for us in a vibrant neighborhood, we can say, ‘We did that. We were a part of that.’”
Veteran Roasters Pullman, just west of 111th Street and Doty Avenue in Pullman, planned for a 2024 opening.