By Nick Kindelsperger Chicago Tribune

Oooh Wee It Is opens every day except Monday in Chatham at exactly 11 a.m. But unless you want to wait in a long line, you might try arriving even earlier. When I showed up on a random Tuesday at 10:58 a.m., the line stretched out the door and into the parking lot.

“It’s like that every single day,” said Mark Walker, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Shae Walker.

In fact, when we spoke on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the wait was over two hours. That’s impressive for any restaurant, especially for one that just opened its doors Feb. 28. But behind the restaurant’s phenomenal success has been years of hard work, a successful pandemic pivot and one incredible sweet tea recipe.

And yet, Mark Walker never intended to become a restaurant owner. He didn’t really consider a career in the food industry to be an option when he was younger, he said.

“I was working at the Ford plant, but I was trying to find a way out,” he said. “I noticed that the vending machines were always empty, so I started to offer my homemade sweet tea.” Instead of using powdered tea and gobs of white sugar, he made his version with real tea leaves, local raw honey and fresh fruit. The demand was overwhelming.

Realizing he had something potentially exciting, in 2014, he knocked on the door of the Harold’s Chicken location at 87th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, and asked if they wanted to sell his sweet tea.

“It just worked out very well,” Walker said with a laugh. “I sold 276,000 cups of tea. I know that because I had a board on the wall at home, and I’d change the number every day. It just grew to where celebrities and politicians started trying it.” (Sadly, that iconic Harold’s location closed last year.)

“It had really blown up,” Shae Walker said. “It got to the point where we couldn’t keep up with the demand.” To get more room to prep, the Walkers decided to open a stand in the River Oaks Center mall in suburban Calumet City.

For a few years, everything was going well; Shae Walker even opened a beauty salon in the same mall. Then the pandemic hit, and the mall shut down.

“All of our income was inside the mall,” she said. “We were honestly bored out of our minds. We were so used to working every single day. We wondered what we could do to occupy our time and still be safe.”

Oooh Wee It Is restaurant's shrimp and grits is among its most popular dishes.
Oooh Wee It Is restaurant’s shrimp and grits is among its most popular dishes. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Trying to keep busy at home, Shae Walker started sharing photos on social media of meals she was cooking. “Then people were like, ‘Are you selling that?’” she said. “But I was just making the food for us.”

A few days later, she decided to see what would happen if she took orders for her jerk chicken wings on Facebook. “I thought I might get a few orders, but then I got like 80 orders!” she said. “It was crazy. I had to round up our children, and we worked all day, from early in the morning to late at night.”

Once again realizing they needed more room for prep, they looked for a restaurant space. In October, they found a small location in south suburban Burnham that lacked a dining room, but allowed them to offer carryout. It did so well, the couple looked for another space, this time with a large dining room. Eventually, they were able to purchase a restaurant at 33 E. 83rd St. in Chatham.

“We really got lucky,” Mark Walker said. “The previous owner kept up the restaurant very well for 20 years.” This allowed the Walkers time to personalize the space, from knocking down a few walls, to adding in swings hanging from the ceiling for guests to pose on for social media posts.

The cereal bar at Oooh Wee It Is restaurant. "Cereal has been a staple in the African American community for a long time," said co-owner Mark Walker.
The cereal bar at Oooh Wee It Is restaurant. “Cereal has been a staple in the African American community for a long time,” said co-owner Mark Walker. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

But the space’s most distinguishing feature is probably the brightly colored cereal bar, featuring a wall of cereal boxes displayed like liquor bottles behind an actual bar with four high-top stools. Cereal is nostalgic for a lot of people, but it also has a special significance for him, Mark Walker said.

“Cereal has been a staple in the African-American community for a long time,” he said. “I had nine sisters and brothers, and there often wasn’t enough cereal to go around. I always told myself that when I was older, I would make sure I always had cereal in my house.” Along with several hard-to-find brands, the restaurant also offers cereal shakes and even cereal cocktails.

Pot roast cupcakes at Oooh Wee It Is restaurant on May 18, 2021.
Pot roast cupcakes at Oooh Wee It Is restaurant on May 18, 2021. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

That playfulness stretches to the food menu, which Mark Walker likes to refer to as “soul food with a twist.” This explains how you’ll find items like grit bowls ($17.99) and pot roast cupcakes ($12.99), which look like the dessert, but feature savory corn muffins topped with pot roast.

“We want to offer food that people are accustomed to, but a lot of millennials are on to different things,” he said. “We try to do something different, and the presentation has to be top-notch. You’ll find a great grilled salmon on the menu.”

You can order some of the Oooh Wee sweet tea ($3.50) too. But instead of arriving in a plain glass, it is served immaculately garnished with multiple kinds of fresh fruit.

Considering how well business is going, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Mark and Shae already have more plans in the works. “We’re launching a food truck and are already looking for a new location,” Mark Walker said.

Safe to say, it’ll be worth the wait.

33 E. 83rd St, 872-244-7505; 2208 E. State St., Burnham, 708-933-0363 (carryout only);

Original article:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here