Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in the South Side of Chicago: An Authentic Black Experience

Chicago Tribune: “The Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at 5500 W. North Ave
where Marshall Fields-Hall died is fortified.”

Sometimes you read a story where one detail pops out at you so startlingly, that it overshadows the primary reason for why it was published in the first place. Courtesy of black people in Chicago, we learn yet another scintillating detail about the type of security measure mandatory in fast food restaurants (which helps one understand why Chick-fil-A tends to franchise restaurants in areas of America that are still… American) in heavily black areas [2 shot to death in separate attacks on South, West sides, Chicago Tribune, January 19, 2013]:

Two young men were shot to death during another night of gun violence in Chicago Friday: One inside a well-lit restaurant along a West Side thoroughfare, the other in a dark gangway on a South Side block populated by vacant brick buildings.

The Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at 5500 W. North Ave. where Marshall Fields-Hall died is fortified: a chain link fence with barbed and razor wire encircles part of the roof near cooling units and thick glass separates the dining area from the cash registers. Food and money exchange hands through small openings at the counter.

Fields-Hall’s killer was on foot when he fired four shots into the restaurant from the outside about 9:15 p.m., police said, close enough to the glass window that detectives had to step over shell casings and red tape when they opened the door to get inside. The holes in the glass, spiderwebbed by the impact, were all within a couple inches of each other, and there were bits of glass on a small ledge inside.

Across the street, separated by three police cars and crime scene tape stretched by strong wind, Fannie White stood with her two great grandchildren, who were playing on a small concrete stoop in front of a boarded-up sandwich shop, running in circles around a brick pillar on the corner of a patio.

“I adopted him as my grandson,” Fannie White said. “It’s really hard.”

White said she wasn’t sure how she was going to explain the death to the children, who knew Fields-Hall.

Trese Butler stood next to White and the children, trying to understand what happened after someone had called her to say her friend was shot and that people were talking about it on Facebook.

“He just made 21. We’re all trying to piece this together,” said Butler, who walked to the scene from her home about a block away. “To me, he’s still a baby.”

After a couple minutes, the four left together, westbound on North Avenue. The four-lane road with parking on both sides is dotted with liquor stores, sandwich shops and blue-light police department cameras.

 News that someone was shot and killed in the South Side of Chicago is nothing new (does the sun rise every morning?); the vivid details supplied by the Chicago Tribune of the extraordinary precautions a Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen must take to remain open – profitable to some degree – is an eye-popping reminder of the Visible Black Hand of Economics.

Read that again:

The Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at 5500 W. North Ave. where Marshall Fields-Hall died is fortified: a chain link fence with barbed and razor wire encircles part of the roof near cooling units and thick glass separates the dining area from the cash registers. Food and money exchange hands through small openings at the counter.

Food and money exchange hands through small openings at the counter? How are any sandwich shops even open in these area? How is any business open in this area, save for the life-saving maneuvers integrated into the business model of the Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen just to maintain the safety of the employees, keeping them out of the red from random black thuggery and – yet – keeping the business somehow financially in the black at the same time?

Virtually no social trust/social capital in an area that is almost exclusively black — but I thought Robert Putnam said homogeneity produced social cohesion and any addition of diversity brought about a ruining of the social fabric in a community.

The Detroit Corollary in action again.

This isn’t the only Popeye’s in the South Side of Chicago where bullet-proof glass separating customers from employesss is a standard operating procedure, though an earlier story from the Chicago Tribune has a much happier ending [Fast-food manager leads gold rush:South Side store captures top Popeyes honor, Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2012]:

A new gold plate hangs on the wall of the Popeyes at 74th Place and Stony Island Avenue, just behind the bulletproof glass that separates the chicken from the customers.
“Don’t it look good?” Betty Bramlett said the other day, pointing to the shiny plate that declares her restaurant the top Popeyes in the country. “Nobody in Chicago has won this in 20 years.”

All around her, the kitchen bustled, fryers gurgling, biscuits baking.

“I’ll take a three-piece spicy with green beans.”

Tongs grabbed the chicken, chicken dropped into the box, the lid snapped on another drink.

“Thank you! Have a nice day!”

It’s hard to imagine that not so long ago, this clean, efficient South Side store was one of the worst Popeyes anywhere, a paradise only for robbers and rodents, and no one is more amazed by its redemption than Betty Bramlett.


Bramlett can’t say exactly how she learned to love work, the kind of work that makes you move and sweat and humble yourself.

“A God-given gift,” she calls it.

She was raised by an aunt and her dad, after her mother died when she was 3. In 1989, as a high school senior who saw no future in college, she went for an interview at a Popeyes and got quizzed by the manager.

Her first job was making biscuits. She graduated to the fryer, then to crew chief. She scrubbed a lot of toilets. All of it was, in her word, joy.

In 2003, Bramlett was sent to run the store at 74th and South Stony Island.
She has a word for that, too: “Hell.”

The problem wasn’t primarily the neighborhood, though it was poor, jobs were scarce, and thieves occasionally jumped over the unshielded counter to grab the cash.

The problem, she said, was the out-of-town owner, who didn’t invest in equipment and fell into disputes with suppliers.

Half the fryers were permanently broken. The rest made popping sounds, like bombs. In the summer, the AC died.

“Our underwear was wet,” Bramlett says. “And then you got to say to customers, ‘Thank you, come again.’ “

Whenever the chicken supplier didn’t show, they had to close early or run to the market on 87th for fatty birds. When the trash collector failed to show, they stored the garbage inside. The rats, at least, were happy.

In 2009 — after visits by sheriffs and health inspectors — the store closed.
When John Brodersen bought it out of bankruptcy, he knew the trouble wasn’t Bramlett and her crew. He had worked his way up from a Popeyes fry clerk to owner of a string of stores. The trouble, he knew, was lack of encouragement and investment.

So after he refurbished the store, in 2010, he invited the old crew back. New fryers. More security. New faith.

“It was like Christmas,” Bramlett says.

Under her management, sales climbed. Drive-thru times went down. So did complaints.

A few months ago, she got a surprise call:

Her store would be among the ones to win a national Popeyes Silver Plate Award for excellence.

She went to New Orleans to collect, and on the evening that Bramlett left the stage with her silver prize, she was as proud as she’d ever been.

Then she heard her name called again.

“Betty Bramlett.”

Betty Bramlett, age 40, who had never won anything except a grade-school trophy in physical education, was being summoned back to the stage. She and her crew at 74th and Stony Island, Chicago, had just won Popeyes’ one-and-only, highest honor: the gold plate.

A story worth celebrating… behind bullet-proof glass no less.

The famous Harold Chicken Shack franchise, which was started in the South Side of Chicago, also operates under the same rules of engagement with its customers — “you can buy our chicken, but we are behind bullet-proof glass“:

Harold Pierce, an African-American Chicago entrepreneur, founded the restaurant in 1950. The character of Harold’s developed primarily out of necessity, because the larger fast food chains tended to avoid African-American neighborhoods.

Some Harold’s restaurants are very informal, with take-away chicken served by employees standing behind a window of bulletproof glass (originally introduced as a necessity rather than an aesthetic concern as Harold’s often served some historically “rough” neighborhoods).

A “necessity” rather than an aesthetic concern in black Chicago. It should be pointed out that the growth of black population in Chicago is only a recent phenomenon.

Nicholas Lemann’s “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America” offers the narrative of how the black population grew in Chicago to one day produce sons, daughters, and grandchildren whose behavior would and depth of civic responsibility would require bullet-proof glass to bar access to the cash register at not just fast food restaurants, but most of the businesses operating on the South Side of Chicago:

…nearly a generation after the fading of the Harlem Renaissance, the South Side had become the capitol of black America. It was (and still is) the largest contiguous settlement of African-Americans. (p.64)

During the 1940s, the black population of Chicago increased 77 percent, from 278,000 to 492,000. In the 1950s, it grew by another 65 percent, to 813,000; at one point 2,200 black people were moving to Chicago every week. By 1960, Chicago had more than half a million more black residents than it had had 20 years earlier, and black migrants from the South were still coming in tremendous numbers. 

The mechanical cotton picker was now in use everywhere in the South, and the sharecropper system had been phased out on most plantations. In demography, there is an important distinction between migrations driven by “push” and “pull” factors; the latter kind goes more smoothly. The attractions of Chicago still constituted a pull northward for many Southern blacks, but now that plantation life had simply ceased to be an option back home, Chicago began to attract people who had been pushed there, too. In black Chicago in the fifties, the slackening off of the demand for unskilled labor had become obvious; blues songs of the era, like J. B. Lenoir’s “Eisenhower Blues” and John Brim’s “Tough Times,” attest to the change. But the number of migrants kept rising – where else was there for displaced sharecroppers to go? (p. 70)

Well… they could always go to Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, where the consequences are on full display via the bullet-proof glass.

 The Great Migration = Manifest Destruction.

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