SOUTH SHORE — Chef Sara’s Café has proven that fresh food sells on the South Side of Chicago, and the chef behind the restaurant has finally accepted her success.
“I didn’t have 6 cents set aside,” Sara Phillips said, looking back at when she started her restaurant at 7201 S. Exchange Ave.
In 2011, Phillips had spent six years selling deli items from the back of a truck outside beauty shops and offices and doing the occasional personal chef job. She admitted starting a cafe wasn’t even on her mind because no one was doing anything similar on the South Shore.
“All they had this way was greasy fast food and the chicken place,” Phillips said.
After 30 years as a flight attendant, usually eating hamburgers between flights, Phillips said she couldn’t stomach many of South Shore’s options, but thought she was in the minority.
“Moving around, all I ate were hamburgers, and it made me sick,” Phillips said. “I felt like I had lead in my feet.”
The closest Chef Sara’s Café menu gets to a burger is the one made from salmon. It’s definitely the only spot in South Shore to get a Panini with rind-on bacon, a spinach salad with raspberry vinaigrette and a cup of chili.
“All the food here will make your tongue slap your brain," said Otis Owens, the manager of the Tropical Den bar a few doors south of the cafe, and a daily customer.
Phillips credited her success to Owens’ and other storeowners’ help, devoted customers and a generous landlord who gave her a break on her rent during the first six months. The restaurant, which features coffee and fresh baked goods made by retired teacher Phyllis Roker, has turned into a neighborhood gathering center of sorts, hosting community meetings and other events.
This month, Phillips took her first break and flew out to Las Vegas to visit a chef friend and spend a couple of days letting someone else plan the menu.
From her flight attendant experience, Phillips said she has learned that fresh fruits and vegetables fight off jet lag and keep her going on a couple hours of sleep. Every day she drives up to Stanley’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetables at 1558 N. Elston Ave. in Bucktown to bring back vegetables like kale, collard greens and purple cauliflower.
She said that customers like the fresh food so much, they've asked her to add even more to her menu, and she has.
Phillips said she knew what to eat when she was laid off from American Airlines in 2001 at age 53, but going to cooking school during her downtime was the "ah-ha" moment.
“My mother and grandmother showed me the basics, but school put it all together,” Phillips said.
She now does much of the cooking in a small kitchen in the converted basement of her South Shore two-flat, preparing a rich vegan butternut squash soup and that trademark chili, so the café can operate without any stoves or ovens.
“Everything is on hot plates,” Phillips said.
These efficiencies have kept Chef Sara’s Café going during its first two years and put it well on the track for success over the coming years. And the good food doesn't hurt.
“Have you tried the smoothies? You have to try the smoothies,” Owens said. "If this place wasn’t here, a lot of people would be upset."