Photo caption of Ollie Williams: Ollie Williams, who co-owns D.A.’s Deli and Dining in Calumet City, with his wife, Angelique, on Dec. 3, 2020. The business is among the beneficiaries of COVID-19 relief funds that Cook County awarded to the Southland Development Authority. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown) 

Development group finds customers for restaurants that serve lunches to food depository workers

By Ted Slowik, DAILY SOUTHTOWN | JUL 29, 2021 

 Thursday’s daily lunch menu at D.A.’s Deli in Calumet City might cause some readers’ mouths to water. 

Options ranged from flavorful baked chicken to savory beef meatballs, each served with steamy white rice, roasted brown gravy and delicious corn on the cob. Or, diners could opt for a garden salad with grilled chicken, mixed greens, hearty vine tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions. 

Some customers chose corned beef or pastrami sandwiches on rye, or grilled chicken Caesar salads with romaine lettuce, Parmesan cheese and croutons. 

D.A.’s Deli this month began providing lunches to Greater Chicago Food Depository workers. 

“With COVID still in effect, everything is up and down,” co-owner Ollie Williams said. “This brings a little more stability to the business. We’re able to give more hours to our employees. It’s been a tremendous help.” 

Co-owner Angelique Williams said the couple has worked with the food depository for years to serve meals to people in need through their church in Englewood. 

For the past seven months the food depository has bought 150 lunches for employees every weekday, said Paul Le Beau, who oversees special projects for the organization. 

“Since December we’ve reinvested more than $300,000 in the economy of these communities by helping support these restaurants, creating jobs and offering employment opportunities to their neighbors in need of employment,” Le Beau said. 

The organization’s 250 employees help supply food pantries and serve people facing hunger. The food depository bought lunches from six different restaurants the first half of the year and recently selected five new eateries, including D.A.’s Deli and Tasty Love Catering in Park Forest. 

“We have a great mix from sandwiches to soul food to barbecue and pizza,” Le Beau said. 

“All these restaurants that we’ve hired have commented that without business the food depository provided their futures would have been pretty bleak or nonexistent,” Le Beau said. 

Ollie Williams said he’s grateful to provide jobs for 15 employees. He has seen increased need during the pandemic through his church work in Englewood, he said. 

“We’ve been on the front lines during the pandemic,” he said. “Now we get to serve the actual community of workers with the food depository. It’s been helping us.” 

Photo caption of Ollie Williams:  Ollie Williams, who co-owns D.A.’s Deli and Dining in Calumet City, with his wife, Angelique, on Dec. 3, 2020. The business is among beneficiaries of COVID-19 relief funds that Cook County awarded to the Southland Development Authority. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown) 

Retail food providers like restaurants and caterers are part of a broader food industry that includes growers, manufacturers, processors and transporters of food, said Bo Kemp, CEO of the Southland Development Authority. The food industry, along with logistics and metals, is one of three areas targeted for launching and helping small businesses, he said. 

“Our intent was to always have a holistic strategy around food,” Kemp said. “In addition to helping businesses on the strategies of how to stay afloat during pandemic we’re looking at how to help them pivot and grow after the pandemic.” 

Private investors and Cook County government agencies were among those who helped launch the Southland Development Authority in late 2019. During the pandemic, the agency has helped south suburban business owners obtain federal stimulus funds and take advantage of mentorship, business advising, educational programs and other resources. 

“We went to various workshops and classes and took a 10-week course on how to build and scale our business,” Ollie Williams said. 

The company is opening a new location in Oak Forest, he said. The expansion is possible in part because of regular business from the food depository, which has committed to buying lunches from D.A.’s Deli through the end of the year. 

“They’ve been able to grow their revenue by providing a number of meals on a regular basis,” Kemp said. 

In addition to helping connect businesses with potential customers, Southland Development Authority also helps connect businesses with potential workers. Many business owners have said they’re having a hard time finding enough employees to maintain staffing levels. 

“Businesses are struggling to get enough workers,” Kemp said. 

With food service as a targeted industry, the development authority is working with state and federal government agencies to develop a 300,000-square-foot business park in the south suburban area that will be focused on food, Kemp said. No location has been selected yet, he said. The facility will offer refrigerated space and other services, he said. 

“It will allow businesses to come and develop and package foods and do it on a small scale so they can focus on developing marketing of the food,” Kemp said. “In that role we’re actually looking to attract businesses that are either already in the area and can move to the food park, but more importantly companies that are not in the area to come and locate and be tenants of this food space.” 

Another piece of the puzzle is finding companies that can help answer an immediate need to provide food transportation services, Kemp said. 

“We are looking to identify trucking companies that might be able to help out,” Kemp said. “We’re hoping to help small businesses in the Southland get additional contracts.” 

Climate change is affecting crops in California and elsewhere. Labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and other challenges have raised awareness of the need for a strong local food industry. The challenges create opportunities for entrepreneurs. 

“The irony of the pandemic is I think it has heightened everyone’s understanding of how important having a local food supply is,” Kemp said. “The Southland is actually well positioned to be one of the closest food supplies for the entire Chicagoland area, and to do it in a way that facilitates creating a secondary income for a lot people who are in the area as well.” 

Ted Slowik is a columnist at the Daily Southtown.