The pandemic has transformed how diners see food halls, and operators have made various changes to survive (and in some cases, they’ve shuttered). In Pullman, One Eleven Food Hall, which opened in 2019, has announced a major restructuring. Instead of featuring three vendors, the food hall will dedicate itself to smoked meats with a full-service location of Lexington Betty Smokehouse, which is moving from its original home near border of Chicago and suburban Oak Park.
While food halls serve as incubators for chefs wanting to own their own restaurants, the owners of One Eleven needed to change their business model, something to make Pullman more of a destination. Beyond cosmetic and kitchen equipment changes, ownership is converting the hall into a room with the ability to host private events as large as 150. Lexington Betty owner and pit master Dominque Leach says she envisions hosting barbecue and bourbon dinners: “Personally, I want higher-end events,” Leach says. “Certainly we want the holiday brunches, we’ll offer holiday meals to stand out.”
Of course, Leach will need a liquor license for the bourbon dinners, and she says she’s been given the “green light” to apply for one. This is a big deal because Pullman has historically been a dry neighborhood.
Developers have sought to transform Pullman, with designs to bring restaurants and retailers to the South Side. The area’s history among laborers led President Obama in 2015 to make a proclamation to establish the Pullman National Monument. Besides One Eleven, home to restaurants from Black chefs from Chicago (when One Eleven opened, food halls weren’t offering many opportunities to Black chefs), the only food options are national chains Potbelly and Culver’s. Giving workers a local option is huge, says Leach, who is Black and queer. The competitive barbecue circuit isn’t full of contestants with those qualities, but the tide is changing for Leach. She recently made national TV appearances on Chopped and Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters.
“We want to be different,” Leach says. “We want to draw the community to a restaurant from a native Chicagoan. The community cares so much about that.”
The food hall’s non-profit owners, Community Neighborhood Initiatives, approached Leach in November to take over the space. The other vendors, AndySunFlower Cafe and Majani, had already vacated the space. Leach was searching for a new home; her landlord was ready to sell the building and Lexington Betty needed another space. Cavalier and Company is handling the redesign.
Crews will install the smoker on Tuesday, March 22 and Leach says she plans on expanding her menu — they’ll offer signature smoke wings, for example. Majani is a vegan restaurant and Lexington Betty wants to continue to serve those who avoid dairy and meat. They’ve got portabella fries and fried cauliflower tossed in barbecue sauce. There’s also a smoked vegan Italian sausage and vegan charcuterie plates.
Leach is confident that her customers from the original location will follow her to Pullman. The pandemic has been tough. She closed a location at Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall on the Near West Side and an opportunity in Houston has stalled (“My wife and I were completely exhausted,” Leach says.) The new location will open in phases, but Leach says a great deal of potential.
Lexington Betty Smokehouse, 756 East 111th Street, planned for an April 30 opening.