CHATHAM — The honey Chatham resident Mark Walker uses to sweeten his iced teas doesn't get any more local: A beekeeper, he uses honey from 16 hives he maintains across the city.
Then he adds fresh fruit to mix up a variety of flavors — including caramel apple, wildberry and banana — to make a drink that's gaining a buzz on social media on the South Side for his business, “Ooohwee Sweet Tea.”
Currently, he brews the sweet tea in a commercial kitchen and sells it out of a small corner of a Harold’s Chicken on 87th Street and Lafayette Avenue. There, he offers cups or gallons of tea from six large jugs he sets up on a stack of vintage suitcases.
When he started at another Harold's in Homewood, he said he was only selling 50 cups a day. Now that he has been in Chatham since January, he can easily average up to 300 cups a day, in addition to 50 to-go gallons.
"Everybody loves it," said Percy Billings, owner of the Chatham Harold's, where Walker pays a monthly fee to operate. " ... I look out out there sometimes and it looks like everybody in the place has tea in their hand."
Customers can get a 16-ounce cup for $2 and a 22-ounce drink for $2.75. If they notify him in advance, they can purchase a gallon for $7. He’ll even make custom flavors if customers want something different for an event or party.
Ayanna Hill, 16, said that she can’t stop coming back for the peach sweet tea. She comes every week and said she usually tries a new flavor, too, since Walker offers free samples.
“I tried the wildberry; it was good, but the peach is still my favorite,” Ayanna said.
Chatham's Stanley Winkfield, 58, tried the sweet tea for the first time last week because he said he would always see a line whenever he stopped to eat at Harold's.
Selling tea wasn’t Walker's initial career goal. He took a class at Wright College about beekeeping while he worked for a skin-care company that used honey in some of its products.
“I was over the sales department for that, but you had to go take up the bee class at [Wright College] to further your education, and so I did that and thought it was very interesting, and I saw that it was very profitable market,” he said.
Eventually he moved on and decided to attend Washburne Culinary Institute. Walker started selling homemade doughnuts with toppings like bacon, candy, cereal and cashews.
“I was just trying to be unique and different,” he said.
It was during that business venture that he saw an opportunity to expand.
“Everybody always wanted something to drink, so I came out with this sweet tea,” Walker said.
Walker said he doesn’t plan to put his sweet tea in grocery stores because it wouldn’t be as natural because he would have to add preservatives.
He has three full-time and two part-time employees, and he said he would like to add more to increase his production and introduce his unique sweet tea to more customers.
“I don’t even care if you buy it, I just want you to taste it, taste the difference. If you can say this reminds me of Leaf [Tea] or Arizona [Tea], some of those, then that would be perfect, but there’s nothing out there with the different flavors like mine,” he said.
He's at Harold's daily until midnight. Contact him through Instagram (@Oooh_wee_sweet_tea) or at 773-934-3438.
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