The pandemic has transformed the way diners view food halls, and operators have made various changes to survive (and in some cases closed). In Pullman, One Eleven Food Hall, which opened in 2019, announced a major restructuring. Instead of featuring three vendors, the food hall will focus on smoked meats with a full-service location of Lexington Betty Smokehouse, which is moving from its original home near the Chicago border and suburban Oak Park.
While food halls serve as incubators for chefs wishing to own their own restaurant, the owners of One Eleven needed to change their business model, something to make Pullman a more popular destination. Beyond cosmetic and kitchen equipment changes, the owner is converting the room into a room that can accommodate private events for up to 150 people. Dominque Leach, owner of Lexington Betty and pit master, said she was considering hosting barbecue and bourbon dinners: “Personally, I want more -end events,” says Leach. wants holiday brunches to stand out, we’re going to offer holiday meals to stand out.
Of course, Leach will need a liquor license for bourbon dinners, and she says she’s been given the “green light” to apply for one. This is a big deal because Pullman has always been a dry neighborhood.
Developers sought to transform Pullman, with designs to bring restaurants and retailers to the South Side. The region’s history among laborers led President Obama in 2015 to issue a proclamation to establish the Pullman National Monument. Aside from One Eleven, which houses restaurants by black Chicago chefs (when One Eleven opened, the food halls didn’t offer many opportunities for black chefs), the only food options are national chains Potbelly and Culver’s. Giving workers a local option is huge, says Leach, who is black and queer. The competitive barbecue circuit isn’t full of competitors with these qualities, but the tide is changing for Leach. She recently made national television appearances on Chopped and Food Network Canada masters of fire.
“We want to be different,” says Leach. “We want to draw the community to a Chicago native’s restaurant. The community cares so much about this.
The nonprofit owners of the food hall, Community Neighborhood Initiatives, approached Leach in November to take over the space. The other vendors, AndySunFlower Cafe and Majani, had already left the space. Leach was looking for a new home; its landlord was ready to sell the building, and Lexington Betty needed another space. Rider and Company takes care of the overhaul.
Crews will set up the smoker on Tuesday, March 22, and Leach says she plans to expand her menu — they’ll be offering signature smoke wings, for example. Majani is a vegan restaurant and Lexington Betty wants to continue serving those who avoid dairy and meat. They have portabella fries and fried cauliflower in barbecue sauce. There is also a smoked vegan Italian sausage and vegan charcuterie plates.
Leach is confident that her customers from the original location will follow her to Pullman. The pandemic has been tough. She closed a location at Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall on the Near West Side and an opportunity in Houston has stalled (“My wife and I were completely exhausted,” Leach says.) The new location will open in phases, but Leach says a lot of potential.
Lexington Betty Smokehouse, 756 East 111th Street, scheduled to open April 30.