A landscaped courtyard brings natural light and greenery to the Center’s public spaces, including a café on the Garden Level of the Museum building. | Credit: Obama Foundation

The Obama Foundation is looking to recruit restaurant owners and caterers from the South and West Sides to operate a restaurant and grab-and-go café inside the future Obama Presidential Center, the presidential library and museum being built in the South Side’s Jackson Park.

Obama Foundation officials said their nonprofit wanted to make sure that Chicago’s culinary diversity will be represented and provide opportunities “for smaller, locally owned businesses.” They are looking for vendors with experience – according to the bid documents, they are looking for vendors that earned no less than $5 million in revenue over the past five years and have experience handling a large volume of customers. The foundation went out to bid on Dec. 1, 2022, with responses due on Feb. 17. Winning bidders are expected to be chosen in June.

Joshua Harris, the foundation’s community development director, said they wanted to involve businesses from the South and West sides in every aspect of the center.

To help get the word out, the foundation worked with the Chicago Urban League and local elected officials. Harris said it reached out to the neighborhood chambers of commerce, specifically mentioning the Austin Chamber of Commerce. However, Austin chamber director Khalilah Johnson said that, to the best of her knowledge, the foundation never reached out to her organization.

Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, said that, while the foundation reached out to them in 2021 about working with local businesses in general, they never talked about food services specifically. Crawford also said he invited the foundation to attend his organization’s monthly meetings, but it never took him up on it.

The Obama Foundation describes the Obama Presidential Center as a combination of a traditional presidential library, a museum and a community gathering and event venue.

“The vision for the OPC is inspired by the legacy of civic engagement shared by Barack and Michelle Obama and will tell the story of the Obama Administration’s achievements, challenges, and lessons learned – as well as of the millions of Americans, in and out of government, at all levels of society, who made that journey possible” reads the official description. “The OPC will be a home for recreation, engagement, storytelling, and story making, and will include a collection of public buildings, a plaza, walkways, and other spaces designed to communicate the message that all are invited here to learn, convene, converse, collaborate, and create.”

While the foundation considered several sites – including the “Silver Shovel” site in North Lawndale – it settled on Jackson Park, near South Shore, Michelle Obama’s home neighborhood.

The center will include a restaurant with between 75 and 90 indoor seats and 45 to 60 outdoor seats. It will be a casual eatery with a “counter service model” where customers either take the food themselves or have the food delivered to them. It would offer “a wide variety of diverse offerings that reflect the foundation’s values.”

The center would also have a café that served coffee and alcoholic drinks along with pastries, salads, sandwiches and snacks. The foundation is also looking to hire catering companies to cater events at the center.

Harris said they were taking a cue from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“They created a dining experience that really truly celebrates our food and our culture,” he said. “I think the other piece to note is that we want local flare, we want to ensure all the wonderful choices in Chicago area are represented in this space, and we want to make sure there’s a scale.”

The foundation held two virtual and two in-person Q&A sessions, including a Nov. 14 in-person session at the Lawndale Christian Health Center, 3750 W. Ogden Ave.

Harris said small and large catering companies, coffee shop owners and local restaurants attended the outreach events, saying that, so far, they attracted “a pretty diverse group of folks in the restaurant industry.”

“President and Mrs. Obama, they chose to locate the museum steps from where they got their start, to give back to the community that gave so much to them,” he added. “While we recognize that the center will be directly on South Side, it will benefit the West Side as well.”

When asked to elaborate, Harris said the center will create jobs and encourage visitors to patronize West Side businesses.

“We want to make sure that those visitors go out to the neighborhoods in the south and west side to engage in local businesses and eat at local restaurants,” he said. “We view this library, this campus, as the economic incubator.”

For more information about this and other bids, visit https://www.obama.org/opportunities/

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...