Last month, the city unveiled an 8,500-square-foot outdoor plaza in Chatham, a new area filled with picnic benches and tables surrounded by works by local artists. Mahalia Jackson Court, named after the influential gospel singer who participated in the Civil Rights Movement alongside her friend Martin Luther King Jr., is a unique space that aims to foster community.
One of the first steps towards attracting visitors was to enlist the help of some of the area’s best food trucks, operations such as I 94 Ribs, Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, The Love Juice Company, and TJ’s. The Greater Chatham Initiative sees restaurants as an integral part of its mission to promote investment in Chatham and the surrounding communities. That includes 75th Street and its Restaurant Row which includes Soul Veg City, Lem’s Bar-BQ, and 5 Loaves Eatery. With the belief that restaurants can anchor communities, he launched the initiative Food Lab Chicago to reestablish commercial corridors in Black neighborhoods while also giving them support to overcome pandemic-related challenges. The effort mimics a campaign in Detroit.
Food Truck Saturdays, launched at the beginning of October in Mahalia Jackson Court, are a way to serve the community and expose customers to new foods while giving food truck owners a stream of potential customers. Nedra Sims Fears, the initiative’s executive director, regularly sponsors food trucks and thinks it would be a great idea to locate them in one place instead of having to hunt them down.
Fears say Chatham was buzzing with people on Saturday afternoon, with customers shopping at Home Depot and Walmart: “We thought after the shopping they would want to take a break,” he said.
The courthouse, near State and 79th Street, is near the CTA’s 79th Street Red Line Stop. Ofnau says the food trucks can serve commuters who use the train to get to their jobs in downtown Chicago. She is hopeful that they could eventually attract a breakfast truck to the plaza on a regular basis. For now, the trucks will be parked until the end of the month. For the last two Saturdays in October, they will also have Halloween events for the family.
“We really appeal to the busy worker or parent and we want to make their lives as simple as possible,” says Fears. “It’s like the North Side where you have a transit hub where you can pick up a diner and go home.”
While North Siders stood in long lines waiting to enter a grocery store during the height of the pandemic, the South and West sides had a different experience. Ofnau says that almost a third of the grocery stores in the area have closed at least temporarily, a portion due to the civil unrest and looting that followed the murder of George Floyd. Chatham restaurants, which were already geared toward buy-in and delivery, saw an increase in business as “literally that’s where the food was,” Fears said. In the two years since Fears said nearly 90 percent of businesses have reopened.
She says they want to add more trucks to offer more flavor to the area.
“We are the capital of soul food, Caribbean and West Indian food in Chicago,” adds Fears.
Food Truck Saturdays at Mahalia Jackson Court, 1 E. 79th Street, October 22 and October 29.