Nestled in the quaint Chicago suburb of Evanston stands Hecky’s Barbecue. The neighborhood barbecue joint has been humbly rooted at the same street corner since 1983 when it first opened with no more than $100 in the cash register. Named Best Suburban barbecue by Better Magazine, Hecky’s attracts locals for its mastery of southside Chicago-style barbecue and its famous barbecue sauce, which is bottled and sold nationwide.
Hecky’s has never been a traditional dine-in restaurant. Instead, it has always functioned as a carryout restaurant, where customers can pick up barbecue to-go or order ahead online. And while takeout and delivery are some of the fastest growing trends for the restaurant industry in 2020, Hecky’s has been mastering the business of carryout for nearly four decades. It’s no surprise, business has been better than ever. As consumers opt for safer ways to continue supporting their favorite restaurants, Hecky’s experienced a remarkable surge in demand—which is precisely why the past few months have looked a bit different for Hecky’s. The normally crowded restaurant has been empty, and loyal customers eager for their go-to barbecue have been turned away—disappointed to discover the restaurant’s locked doors.
This past September, the restaurant temporarily closed its doors, undergoing a complete renovation to build a new and improved workspace so managers and staff can meet the needs of their growing customer base.
Flash forward to a few months later, and the formerly barren scene had a new exuberance. On an unseasonably warm, November day, Hecky’s customers lined the sidewalk, waiting in anticipation for their favorite spot to debut its new look. Speakers blasted music through the streets, and flowers and balloons decorated the sidewalk. Customers were greeted with individually packaged goodie bags with fall-colored cupcakes and customized Hecky’s Barbecue masks. The day was what would have been the late Hecky Powell’s 72nd birthday, who founded the restaurant with his wife, Cheryl Judice Powell. Earlier in May, Hecky passed away due to complications from COVID-19. As a passionate civic leader and avid youth advocate, Hecky was known as the unofficial mayor of Evanston, and his loss has been felt deeply by the Evanston community.
“He was irresistible. His energy, his ideas, his conviction. He just pulls you in,” said Marjorie Craig Benton, co-founder of the Chicago Women’s Club and long-time friend of Hecky. As a self-proclaimed lover of the sweet potato pies, Benton has been dining at Hecky’s since she first moved to Evanston. The two became friends through their mutual political involvement, after Hecky catered one of her fundraising events. “You want to do whatever you can for him, and he wanted to do everything he could for you and for Evanston. There was a kind of magnetism about him.”
On November 6, family, friends, and customers gathered for the grand reopening of Hecky’s barbecue. The event opened with words from his wife Cheryl and Evanston Mayor Steve Haggerty, honoring Hecky and his incredible legacy.
Prior to the reopening, we talked with Hecky Jr. Powell, Hecky’s oldest son, to discuss the story of Hecky’s, its social service initiatives, and the history of its famous barbecue.
A business rooted in philanthropy
Besides serving great barbecue, Hecky’s has been proudly serving the Evanston community for nearly 40 years. “I thought of Hecky as the president of Evanston. He loved Evanston, and Evanston loved him. He was a huge business success. People loved him for that,” said Benton.
On October 13, 1983, Hecky and Cheryl took a chance on a small restaurant business that was for sale. Both of the Powells worked in social services at the time. Hecky was leading an organization called Neighbors at Work, the largest social services agency serving the North Shore at the time. His office building neighbored a year-old barbecue restaurant that was for sale, which is where Hecky’s now stands.
As a well-known political figure in the Evanston area, Hecky was in an excellent position to start a business. His father was in retirement, looking for part-time work, and his mother had just been laid off from a catering company and was an excellent cook. With cherished family recipes passed down from Hecky’s New Orleans “Creole” grandmother, the Powells decided to make an investment and open a barbecue restaurant.
Social service continued to be a dedicated part of the restaurant’s business model. In 1994, Hecky established the Forrest E. Powell Foundation in honor of his father. The purpose of the foundation was to support young people seeking careers in the skilled trades. Additionally, the foundation annually honored an individual who modeled great work ethic. The organization was founded off of the belief that all work has dignity and is valuable. “Everyone’s path isn’t through the university or the college system,” said Hecky Jr. “You have to give folks hope and show them that there are other paths.”
With that core belief in mind, Hecky developed the Evanston Work Ethic Program (WE Program) out of the family foundation in August 2016. The WE Program carries on the greater mission of the Powell Foundation, guiding ambitious students who don’t plan on attending a four-year university. It focuses on Evanston Township High School students, placing them in paid internships during their junior year, where they are able to develop skills in a trade. Hecky’s unfaltering commitment to the youth community allowed his work in social services and the restaurant business to become intertwined.
Hecky’s wife Cheryl said during her speech at the reopening ceremony: “Together, we envision continuing Hecky’s mission in Evanston. This place has served as the first job for untold numbers of young people, where they learn customer service and restaurant skills, a tradition we plan to continue. Watching the growth of this program over the past four years was near and dear to Hecky’s heart, and with your support, we will continue this work. So, without further ado, I think it’s time to get back in business,” she said, as she proceeded to cut the ribbon.
A history lesson on South Side Chicago-style barbecue
While Chicago is one of the most sought-after areas for foodies in the country, with a vibrant restaurant scene and diverse cuisine, barbecue isn’t typically the first that comes to mind. Traditionally, the most well-known barbecue regions are Texas for the beef brisket, the Carolinas for pulled pork, Memphis for pork ribs, and Kansas City for a little bit of everything with an emphasis on the sauce.
However, barbecue has always been an important style of cooking for Chicago’s south side, as unconventional as it may seem. The meat is usually cooked indoors in smoke-choked kitchens to accommodate for harsh winters, and the style of cut is one that many butchers usually throw away. The rib tip is a short section of meat that is trimmed off the bottom of spare ribs, a style of barbecue that originated in Chicago’s south side. Hecky’s is most known for its pork rib tips (and its homemade sauce of course). By opening the restaurant in a northern suburb, the Powells were able to successfully introduce a wider region of Chicago to southside-style barbecue.
“Hecky’s was the first type of barbecue restaurant on the North Shore, in terms of what we call ‘Chicago barbecue,’” Hecky Jr. said. “It’s a great barbecue town and great barbecue region that I wish more people gave a chance. Chicago has great food, and barbecue is one of the most underrated in the region. We put rib tips on the board.”
A local legend
The Evanston community is dedicated to finding more ways to commemorate the man who changed the Chicago barbecue game and graciously served his community,—both inside and outside of the restaurant. And despite the hardship of a great personal loss, Hecky Jr. expresses sincere gratitude for the strong community that Hecky’s has created for him and his family, which will surely last a lifetime.
“My dad was a pretty public person, especially within social services. He really took that way of thinking to the restaurant business,” Hecky Jr. said. “He actually felt like he helped more people, being a business owner and running Hecky’s, than he did being the head of a social service agency.” Through great food and good deeds, Hecky’s has achieved something remarkable, bringing people together and establishing meaningful, long-lasting relationships with its customers.