The West Side’s first Culver’s restaurant opened at the northeastern corner of West Humboldt Park’s Joint Public Safety Training Campus on Nov. 13, and it’s already getting plenty of crowds.

Customers who spoke to Austin Weekly News on the opening day said that just having a sit-down restaurant on the West Side was an important step forward.

Kevin Davis, who lived two blocks from Culver’s, was the restaurant’s first customer. He said that he got there at 8 a.m. Davis said that, to him, it wasn’t just about having a place to eat nearby — it was about giving local groups, such as local senior club, a place to hang out.

“To me, the hamburgers are the best — they’re freshly made,” he added.

Franchisee Baron Waller said that he always tried to open Culver’s locations in places the chain doesn’t usually go, and he was happy to provide job opportunities in the community crying out for them. He said he would consider opening more locations on the West Side.

Waller said that the opening took five years, through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues, so he was happy to finally see it open. He described the opening as a “very important” milestone, not just for him and the franchises he owns, but the community as a whole.

“We’re opening Culver’s on the West Side of Chicago,” Waller said. “We’re excited for the community and [looking forward to] becoming a part of it.”

He said that he was conscious about the impact a franchise like Culver’s would have on a community like West Humboldt Park. They were able to hire 75 employees, mostly from the community, but Waller said that the fact that they got 1,500 applications “just tells me that the neighbors, they’re looking for more opportunities.”

Waller said that he now owns 10 Culver’s locations, five of which are in the city. This isn’t his first time opening a location in majority-Black communities — his very first Chicago Culver’s opened in Bronzeville, one Chicago’s oldest-surviving Black communities. 

Any chance that he might open another Culver’s on the West Side?

“We’ll see,” Waller replied. “We’re always looking for opportunities to grow.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said that after her early years as alderman were marked by creating job opportunities, such as opening the city’s first Walmart, in the Austin part of the 37th ward, she has heard from constituents in the West Humboldt Park of the ward who wanted to see investment as well. The Culver’s, she said, is a step toward fulfilling this request.

“This is an exciting day to have a sit-down restaurant, once again, on Chicago Avenue,” Mitts said.

In the end, she said, it wasn’t about any one restaurant – it was about encouraging large chains to follow its example and open on the West Side.

“We shouldn’t be deprived of businesses coming in,” Mitts said. “We want the same kind of business we have in other parts of the city and the suburbs.

Malcolm Crawford, the executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, has been a vocal advocate of investing in the Austin portion of the Chicago Avenue corridor. He said that he didn’t see why he shouldn’t support a business opening a little further east.

“I’m just always excited to see a new business open,” Crawford said, adding that he was glad to see residents and business owners sitting down and eating.

The campus, which was dubbed “Cop Academy” by its detractors, opened back in January. A Culver’s owned by Waller, of south suburban Olympia Fields, has been part of the campus plans as far back as 2019, but the other restaurant tenant that was supposed to move in, Bronzeville-based Peach’s, dropped out. Mitts, a major supporter of the training campus, which falls within her ward, said that she and Mayor Brandon Johnson are currently in discussions about what might replace it.

JPSTC was built as a larger replacement for the police and fire training academies. Mitts and other supporters billed it as a way to bring in economic development. But opponents argued that it wasn’t the best use of city money and that there are better ways to invest in the community, ones that deal with root causes of crime and violence, rather than supporting something that would increase arrests and incarcerations. The city ultimately approved the plans for the training center in 2019.

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...