Sunday dinners at the Carter’s house were an affair. Donna Carter remembers her mother painstakingly preparing baked chicken and dressing, macaroni and cheese and turnip greens.
“My mom used to be the best cook because she cooked for her family,” Carter, 49, said of her mother, Alice Carter, owner of Alice’s Restaurant, 5638 W. Chicago Ave. “Very seldom did we eat out. We used to get home cooked meals and everything was cooked from scratch.”
Those Sunday dinners laid the foundation for Alice Carter to turn her passion for cooking into a thriving restaurant business. And for nearly 40 years, Carter operated three namesake restaurants in the Austin community where her capacity for helping others rivaled her smothered chicken.
Alice L. Carter, 77, died Wednesday, March 14, after a two week battle with pneumonia. Services were held Tuesday, March 20, at United Baptist Church, 4242 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Alice Carter got into the restaurant business by accident. She worked for a plastic factory where she would often bring leftover Sunday dinners to the job. Donna Carter explained her mother’s co-workers often told her that she needed to open a restaurant. She took that advice and began selling dinners out of her home, said Donna Carter, one of seven siblings. One sibling preceded their mother in death.
Alice Carter’s first restaurant opened in a rented facility on Madison and Kildare in 1972. When that closed, Carter opened two others, Alice 1, on Madison and Parkside and Alice II at its current location. Eventually she closed the Madison restaurant to focus on the Chicago Avenue location.
Glenn Carter remembers his mom’s tenacity. His mother worked, he said, as a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver while operating the two restaurants. He said his mother, a Mississippi native, came to Chicago as part of the Great Migration when blacks left the south to find a better life.
His mother, he said, understood hard work pays off, a work ethic she instilled in her children, who worked in the restaurant washing dishing and waiting tables.
“She didn’t believe that because you were family, you automatically became the big boss. You had to start from the bottom,” Glenn Carter said.
Kuenn McClinton described Alice Carter as a giving person, always willing to take the time to sit, listen and give advice like a wise old sage. That is what McClinton said he will miss about Carter, whom he considered like a mother.
“She inspired me to be a strong black man,” the 49-year-old family friend said. “That was her contribution to me, to educate me on being a strong black man, a good businessman and being good at whatever it is you do regardless what the world might say.”
While politicians such as U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (7th) and Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) have dined at the restaurant, Carter never turned away people who couldn’t afford a meal. Carter was always willing to help the less fortunate said Melvin Mays, 47, who has been with the restaurant for 21 years. He started out as a waiter and is now a grill cook.
“Ms. Alice was the type of person to give anybody a chance,” Mays said. “If somebody’s hungry, she is going to feed them … and she might throw a few dollars in your pocket too. She’s gonna be truly missed.”
“My mom treated everybody like a politician … like they were a person that was important,” Donna Carter added. “She didn’t care if you were a politician or just a person who worked at Walmart, she was going to treat you the same.”
That generosity, Carter explained came from her mother’s big heart, but also from growing up in rural Mississippi and time living in public housing on the city’s West Side.
“She has been there before,” Carter said. “I remember when we didn’t have food on the table. But she loved people and she never liked to see a person hungry.”
The family has no plans to close the restaurant.