Not since the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 has something been kept smoldering for so long. The real flavor of BBQ in Chicago is a secret that is well-kept and passed down from generation to generation. For one Chicago native, Hecky Powell has done more than making a name for himself in the world of BBQ. Sadly his efforts to build a better community on his watch have ended. His battle with COVID-19 led to complications and Hecky passed away on May 22, 2020.
But that’s not where this story ends since Hecky Powell started more than a successful BBQ joint in Evanston. He was an inspiration to a younger generation that could see a future outside of poverty. He was a champion of helping to promote education, which aided and elevated blacks in his community to professional levels. Outside of his professional background he was a community leader and respected visionary. Buried underneath all these accomplishments he had a humble approach to his ethics through his BBQ treats.
A BBQ legend is born
Hecky grew up learning the values that his mother helped solidify. By the age of 8 years, he had already learned how to prepare Creole dishes. This included gumbo and jambalaya which were family favorites as his mother was a transplant of New Orleans. He also learned that food was part of family life and not returning home by dinnertime had consequences. If any of the family wasn’t in school for learning they wouldn’t have dinner put aside. There was no excuse for raising a family that wasn’t rising-up in some way.
In 1983, the doors were opened to Hecky’s BBQ on the corner of Green Bay Road and Emerson Street. This little known BBQ joint in Evanston had no more than 100 bucks in the register but had big ambitions. The word began to spread that Hecky’s offered the kind of BBQ that was delicious and had a memorable sauce. People came from all around town to get a take-out plate that never lost the appeal. It led to a larger menu that allowed Hecky to push forward with his dreams of not just feeding the community.
Having the best BBQ depends on the way the food is prepared. It all starts with the right amount of smoke and rubs. Only a handful of respected barbecue places in Chicago could deliver tender meat that has a delightful crispness. One look at their ribs or hotlinks could see that wonderful pink smoke ring along the outer edge. What ended-up as finished meat was falling off the bone before you could get it in your mouth. Slathered in a tasty BBQ sauce was the icing on the cake that always kept their customer coming back.
Hecky soon was able to expand his business with a delivery truck and then a catering service. It led to the opportunity to market his tasty sauce and seasonings for larger business prestige. In 1985, two years after opening, he made a bold move inviting William Perry aka The Fridge to his joint. Perry was just a rookie at that time but this was when the Bears were major news for American football. Perry showed up and realized 2500 fans were waiting to see him eat.
They needed to move the event to a hall down the street for the fans and press that was there. It was the turning point for Hecky Powell where his BBQ ribs were no longer a secret. He became a celebrity in his own right and started a friendship with William Perry that lasted years. As years passed Hecky would add photographs and awards for his products inside the restaurant. One impressive fact is that the photographs were community people that achieved recognition as black citizens in Chicago.
A champion for freedom with BBQ for all
The efforts of Hecky Powell often went beyond a tasty rack of ribs. He was a continual fighter raising awareness within his reach. He had tirelessly worked as a social services administrator after his graduation from Northeastern Illinois University. It quickly extended into acting as the executive director for a local program called ‘Neighbors at Work’ with CEDA. This is a non-profit organization also called The Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County.
But after some time Hecky could see that his efforts weren’t going in the right direction. This program was only helping people survive. He wanted to see them lifted-out of a universal problem in Illinois called poverty. It was also about the same time that he bought a closed restaurant. Even though this little BBQ spot was just part of his plan, he wanted to teach the kids as well. If he could teach them a skill like fishing, they would not need to ask for a fish instead. With this plan in mind Hecky started a new business that also bloomed.
He was a frequent employer hiring young adults and teens at his BBQ place that was often praised. He eventually was given a key to the city in 2014 for his efforts. Good fortune allowed him to be given the title of Small Business Person of the Year. This was awarded by the Evanston Chamber of Commerce that he proudly displayed at Hecky’s. As he rose to a celebrity-like status he found time sitting on the Board of Transplant Village and other community services.
In 2015, he further commemorated the meaning of June 19 in his way for celebrating Juneteenth. This is the national day that commemorates when George Washington stated his Emancipation Proclamation. This is the day in US history that ended slavery and allowed all black people in America to become free. He invented a bottled drink that was titled Juneteenth Strawberry Soda. It was sold for only 50 cents per bottle through Hecky’s. In his words it bears the catch-line: A sweet sip of freedom’.
Not only did he actively employ local youth in the community, but he also founded a program to elevate Evanston school kids. He created the Forest E. Powell Foundation work ethic program. This is a special program that helps to give Evanston youth proper support for learning trade skills. He named this program after his father who continually spent most of his life working in various trades. The program includes workshops, counseling, mentoring, and also financial assistance.
Not only do young black people have a chance to learn valuable skills, but they can also learn about professional careers. It has been Hecky’s vision to give local disadvantaged kids a chance to move forward. A situation that Hecky knew all too well when he was growing up in his young adult life! Most people don’t know that Hecky went to jail, trying to survive in a repressive system that looks-down on poverty. He went on to get his high school diploma while he was in jail and when he was released, he had a new lease on life.
A recipe for success
To sum-up all the efforts that Hecky Powell has made for the Evanston community, he has left us with a legacy. That means so much more than BBQ since many of the previous employees went onto bigger and better job positions. The restaurant was closed in his honor but his family will continue the business that he helped build. His line of sauces and spices will also remain part of the BBQ magic that he created. One thing that stands-out is the foundation he founded that helps expand lives in an area that deserves change.
In the short space of time that Hecky’s BBQ first opened nearly 30 years ago, he became a success. It went on to show everyone that even BBQ can bring a community together. But even more than that, the kindness and persistence that he strived to achieve will not go unnoticed. Not only will his fans miss him, but the people he has touched to elevate their lives will also continue to seek their dreams. This is something not too many people can achieve without knowing how to lead them in the right direction.
We might be seeing more people in the future who’ve benefited from Hecky and his contributions sharing their story soon. Especially since the recent wave of COVID-19 related deaths has taken away many good people too soon. In his honor since his passing he has received many commemorations of respected government members of Chicago. With their support over the years, many of the programs that Hecky had created would not have been possible. Knowing the determination of Hecky he would find a way if he didn’t have help.
We can all be inspired by the determination of Hecky by honoring his achievements. His family would like to hear your thoughts on their Facebook page and of course the continued interest in reopening Hecky’s BBQ is growing daily. I think he would want to see the business grow despite his passing. Please let them know how much his BBQ means to you while this virus is still not beating the community down.