I TOOK A GROUP OF FRIENDS TO 5 LOAVES EATERY in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood recently, my fourth or fifth visit. As often happens, I was a little nervous that they might not like it as much as I did—really, it’s just a neighborhood cafe, in bright colors and with homey food. Would it be special enough to justify dragging people from the north side to 75th street east of the Dan Ryan, for breakfast? Would they burst my bubble of love for it? Was it good, or just hard for us to get to?

And then one of the waitresses brought a slice of birthday cake out to the table next to us—and “next to us” is pretty much up in the next table’s business, it’s a crowded place on a Saturday morning. And the waitress started to sing “Happy Birthday”—and I don’t mean she sang it like most of us usually do, the halfhearted tuneless hmmm-huh-huh-hmmming you or I are capable of. I mean that she Aretha Franklined that old chestnut, Ha-aa-AAAAAA-PPPPP-YYYY Biiiii-eiiiiii-IIIIIIRTHDA-AY-AY-AYYYY, stopping the whole restaurant in its tracks and bringing the recipient of the birthday wish to tears. We applauded when she finished. I looked to my friends as if to say, see? They looked back at me as if to say, yeah, this is someplace special.

 

 

loaves6

CHICAGO’S AFRICAN-AMERICAN SOUTH SIDE HAS A pretty rough reputation right now, for legitimate reasons with the city’s violence problem, but this is a story about the other south side, about families that are trying to make good lives here. Which is often the story of women who not only raise their families, but open businesses here to give their neighborhood something every neighborhood should have, like a nice breakfast place.

“When my kids were 7 and 3, we just got tired of having to go downtown for a sit-down meal and something that was—not necessarily all that healthy, but something that was good and not necessarily cooked in lard and things like that,” says Connie Simms-Kincaid.

We’re sitting in her cafe, which could be anywhere in the city with its brightly painted walls and occasional pieces of art scattered about along with some homespun sayings. The food has a Southern, soul food feel to it, like chicken and waffles or shrimp and grits, but isn’t the traditional soul food menu—and unlike many soul food places, it’s cooked to order, not served from a buffet line. The clientele is mostly what you might call church-going ladies, though there’s also the family of three, daughter in a high chair, smiling at me; I smile back, and the dad smiles at that. They’re all African-American.

Fried chicken and biscuit

Fried chicken and biscuit

“I started it with my husband and my two sisters, and our chef, Jerry. It’s definitely been a family affair all this time, and it hasn’t stopped,” she says. “My husband and I, we both lost our jobs in the market crash in the early 2000s. So I took my 401k money and a leap of faith. My family said, you’re crazy, now is not the time to open a restaurant—people are losing their houses, all kinds of things are going on. And it was a huge struggle. But we’re still here.”

Simms-Kincaid had worked in the restaurant industry, for franchises and for hotels like The Drake and Hyatt. But in her own community, if you wanted food, your only choice was usually something fried, usually pushed through a window in a metal screen or a bulletproof plexiglass carousel— like Lem’s Bar-B-Q, the famous barbecue stand, down the street. Now, this is a woman with a big, ebullient personality that frequently bursts into a room-filling laugh. No way she was going to be confined to a tiny little window in a metal screen.

“The name is from the book of Matthew, where Jesus feeds the multitudes with the five loaves,” she explains. “But my take on it is the miracle that happens. Because there’ve been so many miracles that have happened with 5 Loaves. But even before that, just the miracle that my family backed me in going into the restaurant business.”


We’ve had our opportunities to move out of the neighborhood, but this community needs a sit-down restaurant that is going to feed them with a lot of love.


I ask her if the food is what she grew up eating. “A lot of them were recipes that we made at home, because we really wanted to feed our family what we ate at home, she says. But then our chef, Jerry Redd, pushed us more toward breakfast, because we started out more as a lunch place,” she says.

Does she consider it soul food? Uh-uh, she says—”No, my mom did not cook soul food. She did not, she cooked very American food. But my husband’s family, once I met him, they really threw down on the soul food. So I kind of picked up from there. I worked in very American restaurants, so I didn’t know about soul food—but I did know seasoning.”

Graziano OMG

 

That’s one thing I noticed right away about the fried chicken at 5 Loaves Eatery—often chicken may be fried perfectly, but it lacks flavor; nobody seasoned the crust. This is not a problem here. “We marinate the chicken for 24 hours before frying it. Once in a while someone will say, the chicken, it wasn’t quite right. And I ask the staff and sure enough, somebody says, it was 18 hours, it seemed good enough—uh-uh. You got to let it have the full 24 hours.”

“People say, why does the food take so long. Well, everything is cooked to order. There’s no microwaves, there’s no heat lamps. We’re old school, this is like stepping back into the 80s.”

Lemon zest pancakes with buttermilk syrup

Lemon zest pancakes with buttermilk syrup

At first I’m a little surprised that her definition of “old school” is that recent. But then I realize that in the 80s, just across 75th street Army & Lou’s would have been scratch-cooking the best-known soul food in the city. So that really is a lost age of real restaurants, rather than takeout stands. Why did they survive, I ask, when others didn’t and don’t? “It’s due to the neighborhood here,” she says. “Everybody’s like family. That’s the feel that we’ve always wanted to have, that you’re in your family’s dining room and you’re having a really nice, hearty, home cooked meal made from scratch.”

“I’ve been told they don’t feel like they’re necessarily on 75th street, they feel like they’re somewhere else. They feel safe here. It isn’t like they’re looking over their shoulder,” she goes on. “For people that come in here, it feels like family. We have regulars—I worked for one restaurant for 15, 16 years and I never saw the type of regulars that we have here. These people come in for breakfast, they come in for a late lunch, and that’s four to five days a week.”

“It’s families that come in like that, and we wind up giving them hugs,” she laughs. Even the way she says the word sounds like a hug. Huyugggg, she says it, wrapping it all around you. “People just come in sometimes for a hug. I cannot believe it. Seriously? They come up to me and say, I just wanted to hug you. Okay, have a nice day, I’ll see you later,” she laughs, rolling her eyes affectionately at the enthusiasm her place seems to inspire in people.

 

 

Brandon, Connie, chef Jerry

Brandon, Connie, chef Jerry

HER CUSTOMERS MAY FEEL LIKE A FAMILY, but her own family has also grown up with the restaurant, too. Besides her husband Robert, her sister Joyce (the one who sang Happy Birthday like Aretha) works there, and her sister Adrienne did and then spun off her own business called The Food Boutique, in the South Loop Hotel.

She has two grown daughters now, and they also grew up with the business. “They were actually raised in the restaurant. The youngest one, Lyndsey, she’s in London right now. She goes to school in California but she’s studying abroad. She can’t wait to get away from the restaurant, but when she works here in the summer they love her, they’re like, she’s a little you! She’s on it. So as much as she can’t stand the restaurant business, she’s good at it.”

“And my oldest one, Avery, she actually works here normally. She’s been bitten by the restaurant bug, but now it’s about guiding her the right way into being more serious about it. Because you definitely have to have a passion for it, because it’ll eat you alive.”

She acknowledges the hard work it takes, but it’s clear she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s really made my life full. First of all, just being able to work with family, sometimes it’s difficult—but for my family to back me that much, and actually say, well, your dreams are important to us too, and actually follow us, it’s been good.”

HP

She looks around her space, at the last few customers finishing up, at the employees like chef Jerry and the server Brandon, who are family too. “This is my baby. But I’m ready to see grand babies now, knock out a wall and expand the space,” she says.

“You’re thinking about expanding?”

“Oh yeah, we need to,” she says. “But you know, every year, something happens.”

 

 

 

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THE RESTAURANT STARTED AT 71st AND YATES for four years before moving to 75th street. Mostly, it’s been a good move, except for the fact that the building keeps trying to kill her business. Once, the business next to her caught fire. Another time, part of the roof caved in.

But the most dangerous thing that happens to her business is a problem that plagues lower-income communities like the South Side. No, it isn’t violence—blessedly, the restaurant has been free of anything like that. But twice now, she’s come to work to find that someone has stolen the electrical connections off the building, for the scrap value of the copper wiring. Not only do they lose business from that, but of course they lose all the food in the coolers, too.

“The first time was devastating because it took us out for like six months,” she says. “And we had to recoup our guests—I mean, we weren’t new over here, but we weren’t well known yet, so we had to do everything over again. Facebook and stuff wasn’t huge yet, so we had to do word of mouth, we had to get out on the street, ‘Hey, we’re back, after six months.'”

The second time was in February of 2015, in the dead of Chicago winter. They had just been featured on a web series called Foodphiles, on the WTTW site, and were hoping for a boost from that. “And we came back in and the lights were off again. I’m like, ‘Okay, did you pay the bill?’ Once again, they got us again on the copper wiring.”

“It was winter, so it was so cold in here. It was like minus 13 degrees,” she says. “So what I did was, I made homemade hot chocolate. My grandmother’s recipe, it came back to me that day. With the real Hershey’s powder, the real whipped cream, all of that.”

She smiles determinedly at the memory. “I made that for the people that were gonna come that day. And they were just sitting in the cold for us, and they were praying for us. And then one of our regulars—I didn’t really know her, I’ve seen her and talked to her but I didn’t know her, and she calls us and says, ‘I have a check for you for a thousand dollars.’ It really was like It’s a Wonderful Life. It was so dark in that kitchen, but there was one beam of light shining through, and that just made me realize that we had to come back. We had to come back, again.”

It’s close to 3:00, and she exchanges goodbyes with the last couple of customers for the day, then turns back to me. “It’s important to stay strong, and we’ve had our opportunities to move out of the neighborhood, but this community needs a sit-down restaurant, and needs one that is going to give them a lot of love, feed them with a lot of love. They need it, so I really feel we can’t leave,” she says. “We’re very grateful to still be in business, and that people choose 5 Loaves. We’re very blessed that they come through this door, and that’s how we treat them, like family. And feed them like family. Family that you like,” she says, letting out whoops of joyful laughter big enough to fill the whole neighborhood.

 


Michael Gebert is the nicest editor Fooditor has.


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  • Keisha Nleka

    God bless you and your family. I am proud that you are living out the american dream of having your own business, and as a young black female, I admire your children for remaining apart of that corporation. One day they will have the reins when mom and dad want to retire. Continue doing what you do we are proud of you. I would like to speak with you because I am aiming to start our first business out of 8 businesses that i want to own in future.

    • Constance Simms-Kincaid

      Keisha, I would love to speak with you as well. I love encouraging entrepreneurs, in being part of this American dream. Please inbox me, your information on our business fb page. 5 Loaves Eatery

  • Constance Simms-Kincaid

    Thank You, Michael for this awesome article! We looking forward to seeing you on your next adventure to the South Side; and the next time you have a taste for chicken.

  • Deborah Gary

    This place has been on my last to try. Now when I go, the visit will have a deeper meaning because of this article. I just might pretend it’s my birthday to hear that voice, lol.