In many African-American homes the name “Uncle Remus” represents the fictional character created by Joel Chandler Harris during the early 1900s, and the stories attached to him were often considered demeaning. But a black family on Chicago’s West Side that has transformed that image into something good for your tummy.
Co-owner Maurice Alfred met his wife Charmaine while both were attending Lewis University, majoring in communications. Charmaine went on to graduate from Columbia College. Now the Uncle Remus Restaurant they opened has been included as the only eatery in the new Wal-Mart store at 4650 W. North Ave.
Maurice and Charmaine are excited by the new venue. “It is a chance for job opportunities,” Maurice said. “We have hired 20 people for the site in the new Wal-Mart.”
Charmaine Alfred is a woman with a big smile and small frame, but she knows her business. That business is operating three of the five Uncle Remus restaurants where the sauce is such a secret even the employees don’t know it.
Recently, we interviewed Charmaine about the new opening in Wal-Mart.
AWN: Did you grow up on the West Side?
Charmaine Alfred: “Yes. I went to high school at Amundsen, 5200 N. Damen, I was one of 27 blacks out of a student body of about 900. I graduated from Columbia College. [Uncle Remus] is a family-owned business, and we have been at the same location (5611 W. Madison) for over 37 years. My parents migrated from Meridian, Miss., and they started out back in the 1960s during the Civil Rights era. My father and mother always had the entrepreneur spirit, and they really took the slogan, “I’m black and I’m proud,” to heart. They wanted to do something during the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement to show that if we just work hard and be honest, we can make it. After Dr. King’s assassination, they had two locations at that time under the name of Royal Chicken, and they were burned down, and there was a third location near Western and Madison. It was still Royal Chicken, but my father wanted to get a new sign and fresh start after the riots. He was going to the sign companies looking for signs for a new business. Sunlight Neon Company said to him there is a sign made over in Indiana, but the owners are not going to open the business, so here’s a sign you can have cheap and the name was ‘Uncle Remus.’ My dad remembered the folklore character Uncle Remus back in the Walt Disney Br’er Rabbit cartoon, and that had negative connotations as far as painting the face black, but my dad knew that Uncle Remus himself out of the folklore was an old wise man. So he held onto that because we as a race of people have wisdom. We are inventors, we are entrepreneurs, and we were even that back in the era of the ’60s through the oppression. So my dad said I’m going to hold onto that, and that is how we became Uncle Remus, and we’re still Uncle Remus to this day.
“We have five locations that the family owns; my brothers own two locations (Madison and Keeler, Roosevelt and Independence Blvd.) and then my three locations are Central and Madison which is the original location, Broadview at 1426 Roosevelt Road, and now at the new Wal-Mart.
AWN: When did you officially take over?
CA: “In 1991, my parents retired, and I knew then I just had a different vision for the business. It had survived through all the times of the 1970s and the 1980s. I knew that we had a great system, and I knew we had a great product, but I knew that the missing piece of the puzzle was to build the system and the franchising model. I just worked hard at it and worked hard at it. I got turned down by a couple of companies who didn’t think we were franchise-able. I just kind of piece-mealed it together, read and educated myself, sought out an attorney, and he’s been kind of helping me. We’re just kind of moving forward from there. In about six months we will be ready to sell our first franchise to a franchisee. I just want to take this time to encourage anyone who has an entrepreneurial passion inside of them to just stick with it. It’s not easy. It’s not overnight. Since 1991, I’ve been working at this for 15 years and I’m just starting.
“Being in Wal-Mart I think is giving Uncle Remus the credibility that it needs to be launched and taken seriously as a potential franchise.”
AWN: What do you hope for the future of Uncle Remus?
CA: “Just as important as coming to Wal-Mart, I’m hoping that I keep the franchise system affordable because we have so many longtime customers that are always asking how they can get into their own business. To make it affordable for the average person. Most franchise systems you can’t afford-your Popeye’s, McDonald’s, your Starbucks. But your average working middle-class person can’t afford that system. So we want to be that niche where you can afford our franchise system. And also I’m hoping to partner with Wal-Mart in the future and to build from that.”