The smell of ribs cooking in the massive oven at Coleman’s Barbecue at 555 N. Cicero is one of life’s delight for Austin residents. But the burners were temporarily turned off following the death of the restaurant’s founder and namesake.
Henry Coleman, 68, died on Aug. 15, 2012 of colon cancer. His funeral took place on Aug. 20 at Central Memorial Missionary Baptist Church, 249 N. Kedzie.
The Coleman family has another restaurant, Coleman’s Hickory House, at 5754 W. Chicago Ave.
A memorial for Mr. Coleman also took place at the Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., attended by well over 200 people. Even in failing health, Mr. Coleman would often come by the restaurant to offer advice on how to prepare the handmade hot links and special barbecue sauce.
“He would come into the shop and make sure that everything was going well,” said Lynette Coleman, his daughter. “I think it is important that we kept this business open. Before my dad passed, he pointed that out. He would tell us, ‘Keep it going.’ He wanted his business to go on.”
The restaurant closed temporarily as the family dealt with his death. Mr. Coleman ran the business with his late brother, George, in the early 1970s. Lynette said the family will follow his wish and keep the restaurant open, carrying on the family business that started in a storefront at Cicero and Monroe in 1971. Soon after opening, her father joined her uncle in running the business.
The restaurant grew by word of mouth. Soon, the Coleman brothers operated four stores in Austin and Maywood, but just two remain now.
Lynette can’t say for sure why her uncle wanted to open a restaurant, but she’s sure it started because of his passion for “good ol’ Southern food.” She remembers her dad splitting time between the restaurant and working full-time at Brach’s Candy Factory at Cicero and Lake. When the business took off, Henry left the factory where he had worked for 11 years.
As the two brothers worked hard to grow the business, tragedy struck. George was killed in 1987 in a car accident. That propelled Mr. Coleman to carry on what his brother started. Lynette said her father was driven to make the business succeed.
She describes her father as a hard-working man who prided himself on giving back to the community. In 1984, the brothers started an annual picnic in Garfield Park that ran for six years. He also provided scholarships to college-bound students and donated food to block club-sponsored events and for funerals. Mr. Coleman was an active member at his church, Central Memorial, where he served as a trustee.
A native of Dermott, Ark., Henry L. Coleman Sr. was born on Oct. 30, 1943 to parents Oscar Coleman Sr. and Scottie Hill. He was one of four children, two now deceased. He moved to Chicago in 1963 with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Alberta. Together they have 13 children.
Mr. Coleman’s father was a pastor in Dermott and a farmer who would often give out extra food from his harvest to neighbors.
“He loved his community,” Lynette said of her dad. “His father was a giver like that. I think that is where he picked it up.”
Malcolm Crawford, co-owner of Sankofa and longtime Austin business leader, describes Mr. Coleman as “a businessman with a community mind.” While looking out for his community, Mr. Coleman also ensured his business’ future, said Crawford, executive director of Austin African-American Business Networking Association, a support group for Austin entrepreneurs.
Five of Henry Coleman’s children help run the restaurant, a point Crawford noted as not too many black-owned businesses groom the next generation to take over.
“That happens a lot in the black community,” Crawford said. “When somebody dies, that’s it and the businesses closes.”
Lynette Coleman hopes to expand the restaurants to allow for sit-down dining. Among the things she learned from her dad: “Be persistent and consistent,” she said.