CHATHAM — Jacqueline Jackson has always wanted to work in the restaurant business.
When Jackson was 13, she lied on an application to land her first job at Burger King. Two years later, she was a crew manager at McDonald’s.
Life took Jackson on a roundabout — she worked as a school teacher, real estate agent and even had a stint in politics — but owning and operating a restaurant still beat at the center.
Jackson made part of her wish come true when she became a franchise owner of Kilwins, an ice cream and chocolate business in the city. She owns five locations, with another shop slated for Andersonville later this year.
But she will finally fulfill her dream by bringing a 3,175-square-foot Fatburger and Buffalo’s Express restaurant to a closed bank in Chatham this year. She received a $1 million grant from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to make it happen.
“This was a dream I had for years,” Jackson said. “In my heart, I always knew that I would end up being an operator one day because I love the atmosphere. I love coming to work. I like the restaurant business.”
Jackson was one of more than two dozen entrepreneurs and nonprofits to receive a Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant in 2021.
The program gives business owners financing to build or renovate projects in underserved communities, buy land and more.
She received $250,000 from the fund to transform a vacant bank in Chatham at 825 E. 87th St. into a bustling Fatburger and Buffalo’s Express with an outdoor patio, drive-thru and indoor eating area.
She dreamt of bringing a Fatburger to the city more than a decade ago when she stumbled across a location in Santa Monica, California, and fell in love with the ambiance and food, she said.
Jackson applied to own a location but was denied because she didn’t have enough experience or funds, she said. It didn’t help that Kanye West had “territorial rights to the Chicagoland area,” she said.
Years later, after operating several Kilwins, Jackson drove past a vacant bank in Chatham and envisioned what it would be like to open a restaurant there. She couldn’t open a Kilwins because “the corporate office didn’t like the concept,” she said.
Jackson prayed and asked God to “reveal what could go in that spot,” she said. Clear as day, she heard one word: Fatburger.
Thanks to her experience at Kilwins and West’s departure from the franchise’s name, she was approved by the Fatburger team to bring a location to the South Side. The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund has brought her closer to making it happen.
But when Jackson received the funding, she realized she’d applied for the wrong grant, she said.
Total costs for Jackson’s project exceeded more than $2 million, she said — she would need more than $250,000.
It would have been “a waste of my time and theirs” to accept the grant, Jackson said. So she rejected the funding. It felt like “throwing away $250,000,” she said.
“I was disappointed and kicking myself wondering how I dropped the ball on this one,” Jackson said.
Jackson reapplied for the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund in 2021, asking for a large lump sum. It felt like “throwing the dice,” she said
But Jackson’s application was accepted. She received $1,021,380 to bring a Fatburger to the South Side.
Jackson is “excited” to bring the restaurant to Chatham, she said. But the process has not been easy, she said.
There are supply chain shortages and demand issues, Jackson said. The state of the economy has caused the cost of construction and goods to nearly quintuple.
Tables and chairs that used to cost $350 are selling for $2,500, Jackson said.
As the owner of the vacant bank for two years, Jackson’s been responsible for paying the bills and maintaining the property, she said. The taxes on the bank, which she also pays, exceed $30,000, she said.
The $1 million awarded by the fund will cover some of the costs, but Jackson will have to “pull from her pockets” to cover the rest, she said. That includes selling a building she’s owned in Chatham for more than 20 years, she said.
Jackson asked City Council for a tax incentive to relieve the $30,000 burden. They make their final decision Wednesday.
Despite the pressure, Jackson refuses to give up on her dream, she said. She’s building her restaurant.
“It’s too late to turn back. I have to make it happen,” Jackson said.
Jackson will break ground on her Fatburger and Buffalo Wing Express in the coming weeks, she said. She hopes to open in late fall.
Jackson will need to hire 40 employees before she can open her doors, she said.
The Chatham restaurant will be the only Fatburger location in the city. Kanye West opened two locations in the area — including a restaurant in Beverly in 2009 — but both have closed.
Jackson is thrilled to make the Fatburger name synonymous with Chicago again, she said.
“I get excited about anything I believe in and am passionate about,” Jackson said. “If it were just something to bring in some money, I wouldn’t have the love, passion, or tenacity to keep doing what I’m doing.”
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