BRONZEVILLE — Last month, people from all walks of life could be found at Rayner & Sons Funeral Home on 71st Street to pay their respects to Chicago barbecue legend Greg Johnson.
The 72-year-old Johnson, who died Dec. 15 from diabetes complications, had no idea the restaurant he opened nearly 50 years ago in the shadow of the Robert Taylor Homes would become a South Side staple. But when Alice’s Bar-B-Q moved to its current home at 65 E. 43rd St., loyal patrons followed.
The restaurant was named after Johnson’s grandmother, who came down every day to sit and watch him work with quiet pride.
Johnson’s former partner, Theresa Stanchel, said people kept coming back because of the sauce, which was a perfect marriage of sweet and tangy. Alice’s was even featured in an episode of WGN TV’s “Chicago’s Best” in 2017.
Johnson had boundless generosity and a smile that could fill a room, said Stanchel, who raised two children with him.
The two met when Stanchel was a senior at Parker High and Johnson a new transplant from the South. A friend who had been dating one of Johnson’s cousins introduced them, and a romance blossomed.
Johnson nurtured Stanchel’s dreams, helping her with her studies at Malcolm X College, she said. Soon after, she became pregnant with their first child and started helping him balance the books at Alice’s.
“He had a way of seeing inside you, of seeing you in a way you didn’t see yourself,” Stanchel said. “He was able to reach down and pull something out of someone that they didn’t know they had.”
When childhood friend Joe Hudgins entrusted Johnson with looking after his son before Hudgins died, Johnson took the teen on as head cook and night manager. Years later, Joshua Hudgins was working the night shift at the restaurant when he was the unintended victim of a shooting. His death devastated Johnson, who worked to make sure nearly everyone on his staff — from cashier to pit master — was from the neighborhood.
Giving opportunities to those who needed them most was important, Stanchel said.
It was Johnson’s preternatural ability to see the potential in people that allowed him to stand by Stanchel, even as she struggled with sobriety, she said. It was he who pushed her and encouraged her to conquer her addiction.
“I’ll forever be grateful for that. I owe him my life,” Stanchel said as she fought back tears.
The loss has been particularly hard for their daughter, Mimi, who is set to take over the restaurant in Johnson’s place, Stanchel said.
“He used to give her a lot of tough love, to make her tough. She’s ready. Everything she’s learned from her father, she’s going to put into the business,” Stanchel said.
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