CHATHAM — Generations of families have eaten at the black-owned Chatham restaurant Capt.’s Hard Time Dining, whose owner Josephine Wade is known to the community simply as "Mother Wade."
After being open for almost 30 years, the restaurant at 436 E. 79th St. might be closing for good.
“Business has been so bad that this is the first year that I wasn’t able to hire the young kids out of school because business has gone down tremendously,” she said.
Wade was referring to the fact that until this year, she has hired teens from the community every summer to work at the restaurant, where she has strived to create a family atmosphere for those who dine in.
Last month, she called a press conference and was joined by other struggling small business owners who are in similar situations and who said violence in the community has led to a drop in business. Son Victor Love, president of the 79th Street Business Corridor Association, said while the business serves up to 200 people for breakfast on a busy day, on Nov. 13 only one customer came in.
Many of the community’s oldest residents have frequented Wade’s eatery for decades, which was originally named after a Mexican restaurant Wade would visit annually in Acapulco, Mexico. Although the Capt.'s Hard Time Dining name remains on the front of the restaurant, Wade now calls it Josephine's Cooking.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) has memories going to the soul-food eatery, known most for the chicken and waffles, with his father.
Clifton Alexander Pierce has been living in the community since 1956. He’s a regular customer and says it’ll be a shame to see the business close.
“I’m very economically prejudice because this is the last of a dying breed — a black business,” he said. “You go down 79th Street, from State to Cottage Grove, 30 nail salons, and nobody looks like us.”
Alexander Pierce tries to help bring business into the neighborhood restaurant as much as possible. As a concert producer he often holds business meetings there and persuades artists to put on their show in the restaurant’s spacious banquet room.
“The hope is that once they see that room, they in turn will come back for repasses, weddings, basically just keeping everything right here in the community,” he said.
Sawyer has been a supporter and advocate of small businesses for years.
“It takes all of us to go in and have a bite to eat,” he said. “We need to spend money at one of the local stores here and continue to identify and patronize our successful black businesses.”
Rebel A. Cole, a finance professor at DePaul University, said many small businesses still haven't recovered from the recession. They are the “engine of growth in the economy,” he said, but without them, everything falls apart.
While the official unemployment rate has dropped to 5 percent, Cole said, he doesn’t believe that’s entirely accurate, and it's far higher in the African-American community.
He believes that people aren’t supporting local businesses because they’re still experiencing financial hardship.
“If you adjust the unemployment rate for the people who dropped out of the labor force, who just gave up looking, we would be at almost 10 percent unemployment,” Cole said. “People don’t have jobs or they’ve given up working, so they’re not getting counted as unemployed. The economy is still really bad. We’ve had very anemic growth since 2007.”
The decrease in people patronizing small businesses on the South Side can be attributed to that unemployment, increases in the cost of living and the misconception that the community is too dangerous, Cole said. The best way to help these businesses thrive is to continue eating and shopping at them, he said.
Cole said that business can boom again in black communities like Chatham
“There’s certainly hope and there’s no reason they can’t,” he said. “The people have to take action.”
J.C. Williams has waited on tables, served, washed dishes and cooked for Josephine's Cooking for nearly two decades.
“I’ve seen this place when it was booming, I’ve seen it come down,” he said. “We’re just hoping and praying.”
Williams said more black people need to support their own so the few businesses left will survive and once again thrive.
“We don’t have have many decent places to go and eat at,” he said. “We have to support the ones that are still here.”
Josephine's Cooking serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s open Tuesdays-Sundays.
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