Skylar Dees, a 26-year-old North Lawndale native and self-taught chef, has a dream. He’s trying to raise enough money to open an eatery and he has his eye on a space — right inside of the MLK Legacy Apartments, 1550 S. Hamlin Ave.
Dees said that, through his business, he hopes to bring a fundamental change to the community where he spent most of his life. And if he has his way, his business would be the first among many to move into the area, reversing the decades of abandonment and disinvestment that plague North Lawndale.
Dees, who attended William Penn Elementary School and North Lawndale College Prep high school, said that he started cooking when he was a kid. He’s been doing it ever since.
“I was cooking for a very large family,” he recalled. “I cooked for my cousins and things like that. Then, I went to college and I cooked for roommates all the time.”
In 2014, he took part in the culinary training program at A Safe Haven, a North Lawndale nonprofit. Deeds did well enough to get a job at the organization. He worked for A Safe Haven for two years, starting out as a cook and working his way up to kitchen manager.
In September 2016, he became an instructor at Inspiration Kitchens, an East Garfield Park nonprofit that teaches the homeless and the poor culinary skills in order to help them get jobs. Around the same time, he was taking classes at North Lawndale’s New Covenant Community Development Corporation’s entrepreneurship center.
Dees would eventually leverage the skills he gained during those years to strike out on his own. Last September, he quit his job and hasn’t looked back.
He said that cooking for hundreds of people at A Safe Haven prepared him for the demands of catering.
After he posted a handsome profit catering an engagement party, he realized the financial potential to be had with independence.
Dees approached Ald. Michael Scott (24th) to see if there was any space in North Lawndale where he could permanently set up shop. The alderman recommended the MLK Legacy Apartments, an affordable housing project built on the site of an apartment building where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family moved to in 1966 to campaign for better housing conditions.
Dees thought the location was fitting.
“Martin Luther King came to North Lawndale to fight slums,” he said. “It’s in direct comparison to what exists right now.”
The building is owned by the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation. Dees said he took part in the organization’s North Lawndale College Opportunity Program and he got to know the LCDC’s executive director, Richard Townsell, who agreed to let Dees use a commercial space in MLK apartments. Dees, however, still needs to raise money to install a kitchen and retail area.
“It’s going to be a very modern space,” he said. “Sort of similar to [Kusanya Cafe in Englewood], but not as rustic. Very modern, clean, updated — not a slum. It’s going to be very nice, compared to what you see at convenience stores or chicken shacks.”
In fact, Dees said he was looking to push back against what he sees as common experience shoppers and diners often face in North Lawndale and other majority-black neighborhoods.
“The problem with a lot of businesses in our community is that they’re not investing to look modern or to be nice or to change the dynamic,” he said. “Aggressive security is not a good business practice. You get the same thing for everybody. [My business would be] the total opposite of that — new, modern, fresh, welcoming and inviting.”
Earlier this month, Dees launched a GoFundMe campaign (https://www.gofundme.com/skyler-dees-catering-company) to raise the funds to implement his dream. As of March 3, he raised $1,047 out of the $14,600 he hopes to raise over the next two to three months.
Dees said that he’s exploring alternatives, such as community development loans and micro-lending programs that he’ll consider if he doesn’t raise enough money through the GoFundMe campaign.