As a young adult, Charmaine Alfred had aspirations of becoming a television broadcaster and even spent time as an adult working on then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s special events team.
It wasn’t until her parents, the owners of the popular “Uncle Remus” restaurant on Chicago’s West Side, urged her to take over the family business, that she realized her true calling, Alfred said.
“My parents appointed me, but God anointed me,” Alfred said last weekend after being honored at a celebration for black owned businesses at Greater St. John Bible Church.
Uncle Remus restaurant is known for its chicken and special secret sauce, Alfred said, but that’s not all they’re known for. Alfred said she makes it a point to hire people with a criminal past.
“I do have a passion for ex-offenders, you know, anybody who has struggled in life (with) low-self esteem, domestic violence,” Alfred said. “We’ve had all of those people come through the restaurant, and we have ministered them back to wholeness.”
With the company’s mission to “be a presence in the community,” and Alfred’s personal vision of making an impact on her 60 employees, she aims to provide a second chance to those who need it most.
“There is a leader in them,” Alfred said. “I just take that time to nurture that leader in them, and they have turned out to be my most loyal employees.”
There are three Uncle Remus locations across the city and plans for expansion to Bolingbrook and at 47th and Cottage Grove in Chicago before summer, she said.
Alfred has used this opportunity to expand her parents’ 50-year old business while revitalizing the notion of black-owned businesses in Chicago.
“I wish that this could catch fire because there are so many business owners in the church that are about to go out of business because we are not supported,” Alfred said.
Rev. Ira Acree, pastor at Greater St. John, said he chose to recognize black business owners during his 50th birthday celebration because the need for black businesses is dire today.
“When I was coming up in the 70’s, I remember there being black businesses,” Acree said. “I remember there being black cleaners. We had a plethora of black businesses down Madison (and) Chicago.”
But since then, those businesses have gone, Acree said, leaving black communities lacking, while increasing the economic divide.
“And so, the wealth gap has expanded between whites and blacks, and we’ve got to turn that around, and it’s not going to happen automatically; we’ve got to be proactive about making it happen,” he said.
Chicago’s most-populated neighborhood, which happens to be largely African-American, has among the highest crime rates in the city, according to reports. And the solution to that, Acree said, is first focusing on economics.
Creating black-owned businesses would greatly improve the economic state of Chicago’s West and South, he said, because it’s important that people within the community support their own.
“If African-American people would support each other, we wouldn’t have to wait on anybody else to rescue us,” Acree said.
Malcolm Crawford, executive director at the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA) and owner of Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center, also was also recognized at the Feb. 8th church service.
“We’ve already had the political conversation and the healthcare conversation and the ex-offender conversation,” Crawford said. “For whatever reason, the economic conversation continues to miss us.”
Which is why celebrating business leaders is necessary, Crawford said.
“We have done a good job at celebrating other leaders in the community, but in the business community that has been few and far between,” Crawford said. “So I’m glad that things are changing.”