On a gray and humid morning last month, a small contingent of local dignitaries — two state representatives, two aldermen, business owners, community leaders and members of Austin’s chamber of commerce — gathered on the patio of MacArthur’s Restaurant, 5412 W. Madison St.
They were here to give the restaurant the chamber’s first Austin Good Business certification, a new program designed to hold local businesses to a set of high standards. The chamber will eventually appoint seven people to a committee responsible for conducting site visits, monitoring businesses’ compliance with city regulations and ensuring customer satisfaction.
But for MacArthur’s, none of that exterior reinforcement was needed. Vincent Williams, the chamber’s president, called the restaurant’s owner “the vanguard of everything that is business on Madison Street.”
MacArthur (“Mac”) Alexander, was sitting on a concrete ledge on the perimeter of all the hoopla. Next to him was a garbage can that had attracted a small colony of bees. When he walked up to receive his certificate, he had a fly swatter in hand.
Alexander is used to important people saying good things about him and his restaurant — the inside of which is lined with photographs of the wealthy, the famous, the powerful and the sitting president, who dedicated several pages in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope to the “big, barrel-chested man in his early sixties, with thinning gray hair, a mustache, and a slight squint behind his glasses that gives him a pensive, professorial air.”
Alexander said then-Senator Obama interviewed him at least twice for the book. There’s a scene on page 250 (in the Three Rivers Press paperback edition) where Obama walks with the sage Alexander to look at one of the businessman’s properties. The two discuss the deteriorating condition on the West Side — the crime, the attitude of the kids, the single-parent households, the boys who “just raise themselves, basically on the streets.”
“Mac shook his head,” Obama writes. “‘I don’t know. I keep thinking we can turn things around. But I’ll be honest with you, Barack — it’s hard not to feel sometimes like the situation is hopeless. Hard — and getting harder.”
When asked, during an interview earlier this month, to describe his relationship with the president — who nailed the businessman’s characteristic frankness and gritty honesty — Alexander didn’t gloat or brag.
“Obama and I used to talk. He’d come in the restaurant sometimes or call me. The kids loved the chicken wings, but they were little back then. He’d have his meetings, here. They’d meet and strategize,” he said.
Has he talked with the former senator since he became president?
“He called once while he was president, but he hasn’t visited. He can’t come around ex-offenders. If he does come, I’d have to be here all by myself,” Alexander said.
The Secret Service doesn’t allow people who have been convicted or arrested for assault, or related offenses, or who have histories of mental illness anywhere near a president.
“I hire mostly ex-offenders,” Alexander said. “Ninety-five percent of my men are ex-offenders and some of the girls. I believe in second chances.”
Alexander was born in Lexington, Mississippi, the youngest of 11 children. His mother stayed home to look after the family while his father logged wood for a living.
“Being from Mississippi, you work hard,” Alexander said. “If a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. When we were little, the government would give out commodities — cheese and flower and some powdered milk. My dad wouldn’t accept it.”
In 1969, Alexander went to Vietnam and fought in the Battle of Hamburger Hill against the North Vietnamese. During the ten-day battle, more than 70 American soldiers were killed and nearly 400 wounded. MacArthur lost his leg and took a bullet in his side. He earned two Purple Hearts for the wounds, but the man who is on a first-name basis with a sitting commander-in-chief said the battle turned him against the military.
“My time over there was wasted. I got scars and a lost leg for nothing, because we didn’t do any good over there. We were on the front line. We did all that fighting trying to save Saigon and when the war was over they still took it. There has to be a better way than fighting,” he said unabashedly.
When he returned home in 1970, he enrolled in Mississippi Valley State University, where he majored in business administration and met his future wife, Albertine. He would follow his wife to Chicago, even though he wasn’t initially attracted to the city.
He got a job at a Jewel’s warehouse, where he worked for two years, slowly saving enough money to go into business for himself. Eventually, he saved enough to open a record store on the West Side.
“I didn’t have enough money to do anything else and you didn’t need a lot of money to do it,” he said. “You could get a few 45’s and a few LP’s for cheap. Back then, record stores were like beauty shops are now. They didn’t take much capital. I was getting a little check from the military and so I just turned that over.”
But the record store didn’t quite satisfy Alexander’s ambition. Even then, he aimed to put young people in his community to work.
“Back in the day, a lot of kids wanted jobs. They refused to go to school and they’d get into trouble. But when I had the record store, I couldn’t but hire one at a time,” he said.
In 1997, Alexander purchased the building across the street from where his current restaurant sits. He said he was trying to imagine an enterprise for the space, when he thought of Manny’s Coffee Shop and Deli on Jefferson St.
“I used to go there a lot when I was in a rush. You didn’t have to wait that long. It was cafeteria style and I wanted to replicate that [on the West Side],” he said.
Alexander, who doesn’t cook (“I don’t have the patience”), would provide the funding and his niece, Sharon McKinney, would provide her experience in the kitchen.
“She was in school at the time. She tells everybody, I stopped her from being a doctor. She claims she left school because of me,” Alexander said, chuckling.
“We said we’d just try something. We had no idea it would work. We got lucky,” he said.
In some respects, MacArthur’s meatloaf, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread and fried chicken is to the West Side what Garrett’s popcorn is to the Loop. And for West Siders, Sundays have never been the same since Alexander and McKinney first opened roughly 20 years ago.
“I’ve always said, if you can’t make it in Chicago, I don’t think you can make it any place,” Alexander said. “That’s just my thinking.”
So what, outside of luck, has been the reason for Alexander’s success?
“I have always believed in being consistent. It doesn’t matter if it snows — you open at the same time. My repeat customers are everything to me,” he said. “My main thing, though, was to treat people right. Treat them with respect. You don’t know who is who. I believe in being fair.”
And he hasn’t gotten big-headed, he said. But then, you can’t get too proud when you’re Mac — who, despite a prosthetic leg and an arthritic spine, is at the restaurant by 7 a.m. in order to help prep for the breakfast crowd; who, while chamber of commerce members and aldermen sang his praises at last month’s ceremony, was too focused on a minor housekeeping matter to bask in glory. He had killed around a dozen bees by the time the crowd of local luminaries had dispersed.
The prominent, the rich, the powerful, the famous, even presidents — those framed smiling faces on the wall — come and go. But there is always work to do and people to help. The city, with all of its problems, is here to stay.
“Chicago is a rough place, but then you just have to deal with,” he said. “You just have to go with the flow. The West Side has been good to me. That’s why I opened here. There’s no way I’d leave.”