THE RIOTS AND UNREST OF THE 1960s IN CHICAGO mark a rupture in the city’s history, and food history is part of it like anything else. Much of the white ethnic south side and its familiar restaurants, pizza parlors, and ice cream shops decamped from the inner city over the next couple of decades. If they survive, it’s in far south suburbs like Homewood and Lansing, or northwest Indiana.
And then there’s Beverly, the neighborhood that time and controversy forgot.
Beverly has known prejudice—in the 1920s, they tried to keep Catholics out. (That worked so well it’s now home to the South Side Irish parade.) But the neighborhood at the southern edge of the city largely avoided the white flight-inducing blockbusting of the early 1970s that cleared out so many south side ethnic white neighborhoods, and the high quality of its historical housing stock helped it remain a middle class haven with a surprisingly well-integrated 60%-35%-5% white/African-American/Hispanic racial mix.
Which is to say, it still looks like your Daley I-Blues Brothers-era image of Chicago, Irish pubs and small businesses with Eastern European names. Plus one bright orange and turquoise, vaguely Googie-style drive-in hamburger stand decorated with Coca-Cola bling, whose neon sign proudly announces Janson’s Drive-In.
Janson’s sits on the west side of Western at 99th, a little flap of the city extending into suburban Evergreen Park. The real culture it belongs to isn’t so much any ethnicity’s as it is car culture. In a city built for walking traffic, here’s a place bright and gaudy enough to lure your car in, the purest Southern California drive-in within city limits. Ater all, even Superdawg with its carhops was originally built to grab people getting off the Milwaukee streetcar. Janson’s has only ever had eyes for Fairlanes and Impalas.
BUT THIS SLICE OF MIDCENTURY AMERICAN popular culture nearly didn’t make it to its present age of 56. Two brothers, Jack and Tom Janson, opened Janson’s in 1960, and their family ran it for 36 years. People in Beverly and Evergreen Park grew up eating there as kids, working there in the summer, and eventually taking their own kids there. The Jansons prided themselves on quality by 1960s standards, serving a special Oscar Mayer-made all-beef hot dog (most Oscar Mayer dogs contained pork), served only at Janson’s and one other stand.
“They sold it back in ’96 to an individual, who had it for ten years. And then, we took it over in 2012,” says Gus Pettas, one of two new owners. Well, took it over… and then it sat, closed and vacant, for two years, while Pettas’ original partner, a developer, proved unsuccessful at getting financing to rehab the rundown kitchen. Ultimately he backed out of the project and Pettas found a new partner, Haiwei Yuan, and at last Janson’s reopened in April 2014.
Pettas is Greek-born—his father brought his family to America after the 1967 military coup. He has a lifetime of restaurant experience, though he came the long way around to operating a hot dog stand. He started with a steakhouse, and then for 27 years he had a contemporary cafe-restaurant and juice bar in south suburban Tinley Park, Wheatfield. He sold it and managed fresh juices for some local Starbucks stores, before seeing that Janson’s was on the market. “We did a major facelift, new electricity, plumbing, dining—they never had anything indoors at that time,” Pettas says.
Just as important as modernizing the physical interior, though, was modernizing the approach to food. “The customer has come to want higher quality. And I want to bring my kids to eat something that’s good, too,” Pettas says. “There’s a lot of shortcuts. You go to 90% of the industry, everything’s frozen—that’s not the case here.”
A lot of owners have the misconception, the price goes up a little, you switch. You cannot do that.
He takes me back into the kitchen. The front area has a typical fast food stainless steel look, built for cleanliness and convenience, so I’m a bit surprised that the serious workspace behind it could have come out of a full-fledged restaurant kitchen—not least because of the huge stockpots in which bones are boiling for stock. Homemade soup? I ask.
“We make our own soup, but this is for the Italian beef,” he says. “We buy the bones and then we make beef stock for the jus, slice our own beef, roast our own beef, everything’s from scratch.”
He warms to his theme and starts showing me all the ingredients behind the fast food menu. “Our food quality is top notch. Our burgers are fresh, certified Angus, and so’s our beef, our New York steak [sandwich], our Philly sandwich,” he explains. “Our chickens are all-natural Coleman’s, our dogs are Vienna Beef, 100% beef. They had Oscar Mayer, but that was twenty years ago. Vienna’s a hometown company, and it’s a better quality product.”
He leads me out of the kitchen and into a prep area, where an employee is portioning out Italian beef. “The condiments that we use throughout are name brands—Hellman’s mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, French’s mustard. Rosen’s buns on the hot dogs—it costs a little bit more, but you’re gonna taste the hot dog. The proper green relish for the hot dog—you’re gonna pay a little more. Our soft-serve ice cream is 10% cream. And the oils that we use are zero trans fats. So when it comes to the food grade, I don’t think you can go any higher than that in the fast food industry.”
“A lot of owners have the misconception, the price goes up a little, you switch. You cannot do that,” he says.
It turns out that staffing is arranged like the back of house. “We use a lot of local high school kids and college kids to work the registers. Including my own,” he says. The face of the restaurant is freshfaced kids, but back in the kitchen, he’s got real line cooks cranking out the food—no teenaged slacking off here.
Still, it’s plain Pettas is sincere in his pride at employing kids from the community where he can. “This year we had five high school graduates—one is going to Georgetown, one is going to DePaul, Michigan State, St. Xavier and the University of Illinois. We had them since we opened two years ago, and we just hired another batch of sophomore high school kids,” he says.
People passing Janson’s as they zoom down Western may not get this, but Pettas sees commitment to the community as an essential piece of his business. Before he reopened the business, “We got together with Joe Janson, he ran it when his father died, and we kind of brainstormed the ideas, what they used to do, how they participated in the community. We just did a big fundraiser for Mount Carmel High School, we did all their food. We participate in the Irish parade every March.”
“So, we have become part of the community again, as the Jansons were themselves. When I run my business, I want to feel proud. I want to be able to talk to my customers, not just sell them food. Once I see you once or twice, I know your name—makes you feel right at home.”
“It has become an institution, the first, second and third generation come in. It’s fun seeing the grandparents, the parents and the kids come in. People love that, the atmosphere,” he says. “The Jansons, that’s what they had for years and years, and the community loved that.”
Michael Gebert likes a good chee’borger chee’borger as the editor of Fooditor.
Join the Discussion
After you comment, click Post. If you're not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.