SOUTHPORT CORRIDOR — There's a good reason the Toons grillmasters couldn't find a Craigslist ad for their stolen smoker after it went missing: the thief had already deleted the ad, having secured a sale before stealing the smoker.
Johnny Van is still amazed that the smoker, nicknamed the Black Pearl, was returned to them at all — he had written it off days after the barbecue trailer was stolen, figuring it had been broken down into scrap metal.
But a Facebook plea that spread like wildfire gave the sad story a happy ending, and Black Pearl has returned home.
The trailer was stolen in late September from a nearby storage lot, and while Van and Toons owner Danny Beck knew they could buy a new one and survive the hit, there was sentimental value embedded deep within her iron grills.
Some recommended the pair start a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $4,200 it would cost to replace the trailer. It wasn't for them, Van said.
"That's for when people have a catastrophic thing, like when somebody dies without having burial expenses, or the Paleta Man," Van said. "This sucked, but it wasn't the end of our world."
Still, Beck and Van searched everywhere for the trailer, also scouring Craigslist and other websites hoping to find Black Pearl listed for sale. When that didn't pan out, Van posted a final plea on Facebook, asking friends in and around Chicago to keep an eye out for the well-used smoker.
Almost 800 people shared the post, reaching as far as some chef friends of Van in Germany. The story eventually spread to Rochelle, a city of 10,000 people about 80 miles west of Chicago, where a sad little smoker was waiting to be brought back home.
The thief, it turned out, had taken a photo of the trailer still safe in its lot and put it on Craigslist before stealing Black Pearl, Van said. When the owners of Hicks BBQ made an offer, he told them to meet him after 4 p.m. Sept. 16.
A screenshot of the deleted Craigslist ad that was posted before someone stole the barbecue trailer from Toons Bar and Grill. [Facebook/Danny Beck]
As the well-meaning buyers made the journey from Rochelle to the Lakeview Whole Foods parking lot, the thief nabbed Black Pearl and sold it for $1,000. He deleted the Craigslist post soon after.
"So when we were all searching, of course we didn't see anything, because the guy pre-advertised it" before he stole it, Van said.
The Hicks team described the seller as a "chubby" 6-foot man with black hair and a black Dodge Challenger, Beck said. While they did file a police report, officers didn't seem very optimistic that an arrest would be made, Van said, which he said didn't bother him much.
"I guess I'd rather see them put their efforts into the bigger crime problems they've got," he said.
When the Hicks family saw Van's post, they called him up and asked him to describe a few key details that would identify Black Pearl. While the serial number had been removed, Van was able to describe enough minute details to convince them they had his grill.
"They probably could have had it out there the rest of their life, and no one would know about it," Van said. "But these guys were stand-up enough to return it."
Van and Beck paid the Hicks back as a reward, but they want to celebrate Black Pearl's homecoming the right way. Soon, they'll throw a party at Toon, 3857 N. Southport Ave., giving away food as thanks to everyone who helped bring their girl back — including the Hickses.
And as tradition goes with Black Pearl, any money raised during the celebration (after they recoup the money paid to the Hicks family) will be donated to charity — this time, Operation BBQ Relief.
Just call her the grill that keeps on giving.
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