News about 53rd St. in Hyde Park, Chicago

Rajun Cajun

Faces of 53rd Street: Trushar Patel of Rajun Cajun

As Rajun Cajun restaurant at 1459 E. 53rd Street prepares to celebrate its 23rd anniversary in December 2016, the 53rd Street Blog is pleased to feature Hyde Park resident and businessman Trushar Patel in this latest edition of “Faces of 53rd Street.”

We recently sat down with Patel, 60, (or more accurately, we sat down and he kept jumping up to personally attend to the constant stream of happy diners) to learn more about the history of this Hyde Park institution and his family’s involvement in the evolution of 53rd Street.

What led you to open Rajun Cajun?

“I was a supervisor at McDonald’s for 16 years. I started as a crewmember, and worked my way up to become a supervisor of four stores – all of them located in Chicago, and all owned by the same person. My goal was always to have my own McDonald’s location. I thought my goal was in sight when my son Nishil was unexpectedly born three months premature in 1991. Nishil was born weighing just 1 lb. 9 oz., and spent three months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Even though I had insurance, it didn’t cover everything, and my life savings went to pay the medical bills. I had to give up my dream of owning a McDonald’s franchise, and I started looking for local businesses that my brother and I could work at together as a family. A local broker found the Rajun Cajun location in 1993, and we were open for business on December 9th that year. The business was originally called Cajun Joe’s Chicken Palace, a sister franchise of Subway that no longer exists, and we decided to change the name to Rajun Cajun to keep some of the name recognition. The original plan was to pronounce ‘Rajun’ as in ‘done’ and meaning ‘king’ in Hindi, but everyone started pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘Cajun’ and the name has stuck ever since. Rajun Cajun now offers a combination of Indian and soul food and our customers love the variety.”

How many people does the restaurant employ? Are any from Hyde Park or the South Side?

“Rajun Cajun has eight employees, including me, my wife, and son. All of us live in Hyde Park.”

What is the best part of being a local business owner and employer in the community?

“I learned a lot from my time with McDonald’s about quality, cleanliness, and service, and I take a lot of pride in my business. We serve excellent quality food – nothing is ready-made or out of a can. Indian recipes are very labor intensive, and we make everything ourselves with lots of peeling and chopping of fresh ingredients. You can come to the restaurant at any time, and it will always be spotless – everything in the restaurant gets cleaned from top to bottom every day. I personally never take a day off, and am at the restaurant from open to close every day without a vacation. It takes a lot of my time, but it’s a sacrifice you have to be willing to make if you want to be a successful business owner. One of my favorite things to see is the generations of families as my customers. Maybe a customer came to us as a pregnant mom, and now I have her 22-year old kid as a customer. We treat our customers like family, and that’s an extension of the way we treat our employees, too. It’s not the typical employer/employee relationship – there’s a lot of trust involved. Our employees cook their own foods for lunch or dinner in the restaurant, and it’s really a ‘home away from home’ for them. Roberta, the woman who makes our samosas, has been with us for 23 years, and Teresa, the woman who bakes our bread, has been with us 20 years. The first Rajun Cajun employees are still here, and we’ve become a true family.”

There’s a large photo mural of postcards sent to Rajun Cajun by loyal customers displayed on the wall of the renovated restaurant. How did this practice get started?

“When we first opened in 1993, no one knew there was an Indian restaurant in Hyde Park, and we had to rely on word of mouth and recommendations to get new customers. Students started coming in, became our friends, they told other friends, and our business grew. When customers went on vacation or back to their home countries they would send postcards to the restaurant. We got so many and used to throw them out, but my nephew told me we should save them, and we started displaying them on the wall. When the restaurant was renovated last summer, we decided to turn the postcards into a mural for everyone to enjoy.”

What are some of your favorite things about 53rd Street?

“The restaurant has been open since 1993, and my family has lived in Hyde Park since about 1996. During that time there’s been an amazing transformation in Hyde Park, and we love it. Things can never stay the same – especially in a city neighborhood – and the Hyatt Hotel, Harper Theater, and the many shops and restaurants have all contributed to the growth of Hyde Park and our local economy. President Obama likes change, and we do, too.”

During more than 20 years here, what have been your impressions of Hyde Park?

“When I worked at McDonald’s I never went past downtown and had no idea about the south side – it was a new thing for me and it was very exciting to see all the different people from different backgrounds here. For example, my wife is from Tanzania, and Sister Rose, the owner of the shop Kilimanjaro International at 1305 E. 53rd Street, also happens to be from Tanzania. It’s a very small world, made even smaller when you live and work in Hyde Park.”

What do you like to do in Hyde Park when you are not working?

“It sounds funny, but after a long day at the restaurant, my wife, Anila, and I like to go out to dinner. Some of our favorite local places include the Litehouse Whole Food Grill, the Sitdown Café and Sushi Bar, Wingers, Chipotle, Maravillas, and Boston Market.”

What are your plans for the future at Rajun Cajun?

“I won’t be retiring any time soon. We’re very proud of the money we’ve been able to collect for an orphanage with 150 children in Chanod, India – more than $2,000 last year – all due to the generosity of our customers who contribute to our collection box near the cash register. The money goes to provide healthy meals, school supplies, and food for Nandani, the ophanage’s calf.

We’re happy to be on 53rd Street, and plan to continue offering quality dining for our customers for a long time to come.”

Faces of 53rd Street: Eric Williams

When you meet Eric Williams, the dynamic, creative owner of The Silver Room at 1506 E. 53rd Street in Hyde Park, you might not realize he was originally a finance major and a stockbroker – but that’s exactly how the career of one of Chicago’s most recognized retail entrepreneurs began.

As a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the early 1990s, Williams started selling t-shirts and sunglasses on the street to put himself through school.

A brief stint as a stockbroker turned him off the corporate world, and he started selling his products full-time around town, at street festivals, and in the basement of a Wicker Park boutique, Lit-X. A chance meeting with two New York vendors at Jazz Fest in New Orleans got him started selling silver jewelry, and with no comparable stores in the area, he opened The Silver Room – a hybrid jewelry, art, and apparel shop, as well as art gallery and event space – in 1997 in Wicker Park.

The ever-evolving nature of the store – both in the original Wicker Park location and now in Hyde Park – keeps Williams interested and engaged. He has honed his skills in creating a true neighborhood gathering place, where local musicians play and people want to take classes and spend time – one of the hallmarks of The Silver Room, or “TSR” as fans call it.

We visited Williams in his store to learn more about his continuing involvement in the Hyde Park area:

Q: What led you to move the store to Hyde Park from Wicker Park in 2015?

Williams: My lease was ending, and I was reevaluating whether or not I wanted to commit to another 10 years in Wicker Park. I felt like the neighborhood was changing, and it actually seemed to be losing some of the creativity and excitement that I had been so drawn to years ago. Hyde Park has actually turned out to be a better “fit” for The Silver Room. I get people thanking me for being here, and that is a great feeling. Also, Hyde Park seems to have a less transitory nature than Wicker Park. Many of my customers were born in the Hyde Park area and they are still here today. They bring their families and friends, and The Silver Room has become an extension of their living rooms.

Q: Originally a “pop-up” retail location, you recently signed a five-year lease for The Silver Room on 53rd Street – what factors guided your decision to remain in the Hyde Park community on a more permanent basis?

Williams: I wanted to stay in Hyde Park because I was welcomed by the community and everyone was so happy and excited for me to be here – that’s number one. Our employees are happy, we’re busier here, and it just makes sense from a business perspective. There’s a new energy for me here – something that I really needed.  I like the level of collaboration here with the University, the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, the South East Chicago Commission, and other groups. I see Hyde Park continuing to grow and grow in the next few years, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Q: How many people does The Silver Room employ? Are any of the employees from Hyde Park or the South Side?

Williams: Right now we have six employees, and four of them are from the South Side. Two of them live in Hyde Park, and the other two live in Bronzeville and South Shore. Two of them worked with me at the Wicker Park location and are happy to have a shorter commute.

Q: What is your favorite thing about 53rd Street?

Williams: The authentic style of my customers in Hyde Park is so inspiring.  I also love the diversity. There's a wide range of ages here that I didn’t see in Wicker Park. Everyone is friendly and welcoming and they really seem to appreciate what the store adds to the community. 

Q: The Silver Room hosts French lessons, salsa dance classes, singles events, art shows, film screenings, spoken word nights, and more. How do you develop the programming for the community gathering aspect of the store?

Williams: I try to plan at least two of my own events each month -– usually an art opening and a spoken word event. Our upcoming art exhibit will launch during Black History Month and feature works by local artists inspired by the legacy of Muhammad Ali.

Many of the other events are dictated by the community. Probably 80 percent is community-driven, in response to what people in the area want to see. For example, right now we are collecting water for Flint, Michigan. We’ve already collected 50 cases of water – and this is all because of an idea from someone in the community. People see The Silver Room as a hub in the neighborhood, and we try to answer everyone’s needs as best as we can.

Q: Your collaboration with the University of Chicago on last year’s successful Harper Court Summer Music Series will be continuing this summer with four new events. What can the neighborhood expect in terms of performers, music styles, etc.?

Williams: Last year’s events included steppers, jazz, and Latin music, and the community really responded well to that mix. This year we’ll do more of the same, and probably add some blues.

Q: What are your favorite hangouts in Hyde Park? Where might people see you in the neighborhood?

Williams: When I’m not at The Silver Room, some of my favorite places are Rajun Cajun, The Promontory, and 57th Street Books.

Q: We’ve heard you even hosted a wedding at The Silver Room last year – how did that come about?

Williams: A long-time customer from the Wicker Park location got his wedding rings in Hyde Park and he really loves the concept of the store. He said he wanted to get married here, so we made it happen. It brought a tear to my eye that he would have one of the most important moments of his life at The Silver Room. It’s a retail store that’s more than just a retail store, and the wedding was one of the highlights of the year for me.

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"Faces of 53rd Street" is a twice-monthly series that profiles business owners, employees, and shoppers in the 53rd Street retail corridor in Hyde Park. To suggest someone for a future profile, send their name and place of business or contact details to us at 53rd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Faces of 53rd Street: Matthias Merges

By Calmetta Coleman and Lilian Huang

After opening two new restaurants in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Matthias Merges faced a common restaurant industry challenge: securing and keeping high-quality employees.

The award-winning chef could have recruited workers from anywhere in the city for his French-Italian eatery A10 and Japanese-inspired Yusho, including from the original Yusho in the Avondale neighborhood. Instead, he instituted a policy that 70 percent of A10 and Yusho employees must live within walking distance of their workplace or have easy access by bus. While keeping a restaurant employee for 18 months is considered good in the industry, both A10 and Yusho, which opened in 2013 and 2014, respectively, have staff who have been with them since the beginning. Together, the restaurants employ 60 people.

“We could have brought employees from the North Side, but that doesn’t do any good for us or the community,” says Merges, who lives on the North Side. “We’re invested in the community.”

Indeed, while still running three other popular restaurants elsewhere in Chicago and Las Vegas, Merges spends about one-third of his time in Hyde Park and sits on the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce. Locals might spot him, sporting his signature beard, at museums and other cultural venues in the neighborhood—or even at other restaurants on 53rd Street.

A few months ago, Merges recalls, a customer came into A10, looked over the menu, and made it known that he did not want any of the dishes listed. What he really wanted, he said, was fried fish. Wired to please his customers, Merges headed across the street to Indian restaurant Rajun Cajun and borrowed a raw red snapper. He fried it up and served it with roasted potatoes and tartar sauce. After the meal, the customer told Merges, “That’s the best piece of fish I’ve ever had.”

One of Merges’ favorite things about 53rd Street is the community of restaurants and how they interact with and support one another. There is, naturally, a good deal of overlap between customers of A10, at 1462 E. 53rd Street, and Yusho, at 1301 E. 53rd, with some patrons frequently dining at both in the same day. The restaurants also welcome referrals from the likes of Rajun Cajun and Pizza Capri and return the favor by recommending neighboring restaurants for their customers who decide to go elsewhere. “The more community you create, the more successful everyone is going to be,” Merges says.

Merges’ definition of success goes beyond the profitability of his restaurants. He also has a mission of serving the community through his work. He partners with the Cook County Jail’s nonviolent felon release program to operate a vegetable garden where inmates cultivate and tend produce for Chicago restaurants. Merges and his employees help the inmates to develop these valuable skills and provide them with information on what it is like working in a restaurant. A number of inmates from the program have gone on to work at Merges’ restaurants. Merges describes his approach to this work in simple terms, “You search for people who never had the opportunity to do good, and give them an opportunity, and they do good.”

The 49-year-old is also one of the founders of Pilot Light, a nonprofit that partners with Chicago schools to educate children about food and nutrition and equip them to make healthy lifestyle choices. Its free curriculum is currently implemented in six schools, including Ray Elementary in Hyde Park and Anna R. Langford Community Academy in Englewood.

Even with five restaurants and nonprofit work on his plate, Merges still makes time for hobbies. He enjoys activities like camping, running, climbing and, of course, spending time with his family. His wife, a Chicago architect, had a hand in designing both of his Hyde Park restaurants, and at home, he teaches his three daughters how to cook. Merges also does photography, including promotional photography for his restaurants.

He is excited about the potential for his 53rd Street restaurants and for the neighborhood in general. “There has been an emergence of 53rd Street that has been great, but has not hit its peak,” he says.

At A10 and Yusho, he continually looks for ways to keep the offerings fresh. Both restaurants frequently offer unique menus for holidays and other special occasions, such as A10’s Sunday brunch menu and its “Tour the Garden” dinner series this past summer, which showcased a different item of produce from the Hyde Park farmer’s market every Wednesday. He also recently hired a new chef for A10.

“Creating a culture is very important for us, and it takes time to do that,” he notes. “We’ve made great strides, but I can’t wait to see the five-year mark!”

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Faces of 53rd Street is a twice-monthly series that profiles business owners, employees, and shoppers who contribute to the vibrancy of Hyde Park's 53rd Street retail corridor. If you would like to recommend a familiar face on 53rd Street for a profile, write to us at 53rd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Rajun Cajun reopens on September 17 after interior design refresh

Rajun Cajun, at 1459 E. 53rd Street, will reopen on Thursday, September 17th after a temporary closing for an interior design refresh.

Owned by Hyde Park resident Trushar Patel, Rajun Cajun has been open for business since 1993, and has been featured in Chicago magazine, the Chicago Reader, and “Chicago’s Best Food Challenges” on WGN-TV, among others. After 20+ years, Patel thought it was a good time for an interior spruce up, coinciding with the completion of the renovation of the Doerr Building, of which he is a tenant.

Rajun Cajun closed on July 3, and Patel kept his customers up-to-date on the restaurant’s Facebook page with photos of his progress during the 11 weeks of the renovation project.

Patrons will find new tables and seating, lighting, tile-work, and wood paneling, as well as a custom-designed wall mural. Rajun Cajun is so well-loved by its customers that they often send Patel postcards from all over the world, describing the menu items they miss the most, and these postcards have been incorporated into the wall mural. If you’ve sent Patel a postcard in the past few years, you might just find it as part of the design.

“I’m very happy to be reopening,” said Patel. “ I have missed all my customers, and I think they will say that the wait was worth it once they come back to see the restaurant.”

“Rajun Cajun has been offering its many customers an authentic taste of India as well as the American South for over 20 years,” said James Hennessy, associate vice president for commercial real estate operations for the University. “The new interior design is a fresh look for one of Hyde Park’s most favorite restaurants."

An official ribbon cutting ceremony is planned in the coming weeks.

 

Ten Hyde Park restaurants to participate in June 9 Dinner Crawl

The Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce Dinner Crawl takes place on Tuesday, June 9.

The annual event features 10 local restaurants including A10 Hyde Park, Chant, Clarke’s Diner, Ja’ Grill, Kilwins, Mellow Yellow Restaurant, Native Foods, Porkchop, Rajun Cajun, and ZBerry Frozen Yogurt & Treats.

The crawl begins at 5:30 pm. starting from The Silver Room, and continues until 9 p.m.

Tickets are $35 each, or $25 when purchased online by June 8 at www.hydeparkchamberchicago.org/crawl.

“Chicago’s Best” food challenge films at 53rd Street’s Rajun Cajun

Elliott Bambrough from WGN-TV will be coming to Hyde Park to film Trushar Patel, owner of Rajun Cajun, for an episode of “Chicago’s Best” food challenge.

The segment will be filmed on Friday, May 15th at 11 a.m. and will air on Sunday, June 14th, at 10 p.m. on WGN.

Bambrough will interview Patel about what makes Rajun Cajun one of “Chicago’s Best” and which of his spicy menu items stand out from the rest. The two will cook a dish together – ideally so hot that Bambrough will not be able to finish it.

If you’re a Rajun Cajun fan and happen to be in the restaurant that day - who knows - you might just end up on television.

June 24 Hyde Park Dinner Crawl to feature 53rd Street cuisine

Eight restaurants on 53rd Street will offer culinary delights as part of the Hyde Park Dinner Crawl organized by the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce.

Stops along the Crawl include A10, Chant, Clarke's, Kilwins, Mellow Yellow, Native Foods, Pizza Capri, and Rajun Cajun.

The event will run from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24. Tickets are $30 per person in advance or $35 on the day of the Crawl. To purchase tickets online, visit hydeparkchamberchicago.org/crawl.