Evelyn's Food Love

“We’re excited about the possibilities,” Shelton said. “LISC really helped us do this."

Story by Justin Breen, photo by Gordon Walek.

Evelyn Shelton wants to revitalize Washington Park one triple chocolate chip pancake at a time, and a substantial LISC Small Business loan is allowing her to do just that. 

Shelton debuted her restaurant – Evelyn’s Food Love – in Washington Park, a neighborhood that has struggled with crime, vacant lots and poverty. She said residents and others have quickly embraced the new restaurant, which has a cafeteria-style setting, open seating, and offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some of the most popular items include roasted chicken, fresh salads and triple chocolate chip pancakes covered in chocolate syrup, caramel, vanilla bean ice cream and cocoa powder. 

“This area has nowhere to go but up, and Washington Park was an area where we thought we could make a difference,” said Shelton, a Bronzeville resident who graduated from King High School and has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College, a master’s from Roosevelt University and a culinary degree from Kendall College. 

LISC provided Evelyn’s Food Love a $146,800 loan through the SBA Community Advantage program, which Shelton used to purchase the building at 5522 S. State St. and make renovations. Steve Hall, vice president for LISC Small Business, said many traditional banks and lenders are reluctant to lend to first-time business owners in communities like Washington Park, and Shelton likely would not have been able to open her restaurant without LISC’s help.

“A key tenet of our economic development strategy is that power and wealth comes through ownership. Investing in local businesses and entrepreneurship in our neighborhoods is essential to creating community wealth and power,” said Meghan Harte, LISC Chicago’s executive director. "Supporting a locally owned business like Evelyn's Food Love is integral to supporting the community." 

Hall added: “Many of our customers depend on technical assistance from LISC Small Business, and, without that assistance, they wouldn’t qualify for a loan anywhere except from predatory lenders.”

Washington Park might not seem like an obvious choice for a new business to put down roots. But the neighborhood also has a rich history, residents hungry for new local options and community organizations eager to attract more businesses, better housing and other community services.

Shelton said longtime Washington Park residents constantly tell her about the neighborhood’s vibrant past, with places like Club DeLisa, a legendary nightclub and music venue, making this part of State Street a South Side destination from 1934-58. They’re glad to have a non-fast food restaurant to routinely visit and have fast made Evelyn’s Food Love a community gather spot. 

“The residents are very, very happy that we are here, and we are happy to be a part of the positive change that we think is inevitable for this neighborhood,” Shelton said.

Hall understands where Shelton is coming from. The Beverly resident grew up near the Ida B. Wells Housing Projects and was one of the first in his family to graduate from college.

Hall said Shelton might not be an obvious business customer for most institutions. Her loan is too small, and her plans might seem too risky. But, she represents precisely the kind of customer LISC Small Business’ serves: people of color, women, veterans and people who live in low-to-moderate income areas. 

“I understand [Evelyn] from a banker’s perspective and from a community perspective,” Hall said. “Evelyn’s community, that is my community – where it is often tough to attract traditional lenders and investors.” 

Hall said his childhood was shaped learning how to fight and talk fast to get out of difficult situations. Even as a 9-year-old, he dreamt of owning a small business, and, now 46, Hall has operated six small businesses – some with success, others not as much. 

Hall, who was previously a small business banker for a regional bank on Chicago’s South and West sides, said of the 60-some small businesses that LISC Small Business has helped fund in the past two years, 97 percent are still operational.

The businesses that succeed become bedrocks of the communities, and Hall said they hopefully inspire others to open their own small businesses in the neighborhood.

“Others think, maybe I can achieve this outcome,” Hall said. “If you see it, you can believe it.” 

“At LISC, we do loans that banks traditionally would not do,” said Hall, who noted that LISC Small Business loans up to $250,000 are offered for startup businesses and business expansions in communities that are underbanked. “We try to fill a gap where LISC gives them the initial capital to get started, but we want them to graduate so they can access conventional loans in the future.” 

Hall said Small Business Saturday, which takes place Nov. 25, is one of the few times all year that businesses like Shelton’s get the attention they deserve. 

“Small Business Saturday was started to really push these mom and pop stores,” Hall said. “These businesses need local support to survive.” 

Shelton said LISC has been “a great partner for us.” She’s hoping to expand her restaurant by adding a backyard patio and purchasing a vacant lot next door, where she could add a smoker or venue for live entertainment. 

“We’re excited about the possibilities,” Shelton said. “LISC really helped us do this. They told me that I was their mission statement, and this is why they existed – to help businesses like mine that could not otherwise receive loans. They worked really, really hard to make this happen, and everybody was invested. And now, look, it’s happened.” 

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