Keisha Rucker spent her entire life in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. This is where she went to school at Kenwood Academy and DePaul University, developed her entrepreneurial skills, and now serves her community. After studying cosmetology and working in hair, fashion, commercial real estate and customer service, Rucker has turned to the kitchen as the co-owner of The Soul Shack, a boutique soul food restaurant located on E. 53rd Street in downtown Chicago.
Rucker grew up cooking and eating soul food with her large, close-knit family. “I know everything there is to know about soul food,” says Rucker. Her favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, but she never serves an ordinary “turkey and fixing” menu to her guests. Instead, she prepares Cornish hens, lamb chops, grilled salmon, short ribs, and an assortment of sides. This is what inspired her to open her restaurant.
“Going to The Soul Shack is like having a Thanksgiving dinner every single day,” Rucker shares with excitement. You can have your classic soul food dishes such as Southern-style fried chicken, cornbread and green beans, or go a little higher end with surf and turf specials. One of Rucker’s bestselling menu items is jerked Cornish hens, a full hen seasoned with a homemade jerk marinade and grilled to perfection.
Mz Hyde Park
“I grew up in this neighborhood, worked at family restaurant businesses, and loved interacting with people,” says Rucker. When her business partner Rico Nance approached her about opening a restaurant in his building, Rucker knew it was the right fit. Together, they created an innovative menu, but it was Rucker who attracted people from her community to come try it out.
“People who had seen me since I was a little girl found out about my restaurant, and they started calling me Mz Hyde Park,” says Rucker, who loves her new nickname. Hyde Park is a closed community where residents try to support each other. She continues to raise her daughters in the same neighborhood she grew up in as well.
Pivoting During COVID-19
The Soul Shack had just turned one when the pandemic hit the restaurant industry. Rucker faced some of the same challenges that businesses around her did. “Initially, none of us knew how to react to COVID-19. We opened the restaurant back up for delivery only, when we are allowed to. I wanted to continue serving my customers and providing work to my employees,” she adds.
However, most of her employees didn’t feel comfortable returning to work and others faced reduced hours. The restaurant survived mainly because of online orders and contactless delivery.
The biggest impact on The Soul Shack was due to the closing of the area schools that supported lunch traffic. When the city of Chicago was shut down, and restaurants were not allowed to open for dine-in, Rucker switched entirely to a delivery service model, signing up with multiple pick-up services. “I know a lot of people have been unemployed, but they still come and dine to support local restaurants. The neighborhood and community are keeping me in business.” Rucker attributes her success to her relationship with her neighborhood.
Giving Back To The Community
Rucker has played her part in taking an active role in giving back to the south side of Chicago. On Wednesdays, The Soul Shack gives free meals to Hyde Park’s homeless community and the increasing number of seniors in need. Rucker is also passionate about helping the youth. She goes to schools to talk about entrepreneurship and self-employment, mentors kids and provides summer jobs.
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Rucker says she has fed doctors at hospitals, organized turkey drives during Thanksgiving, partnered with the Asian American Caucus, and fed frontline mothers and their families on Mother’s Day. “Whenever someone needs my help, I am there,” says Rucker, who never shy’s away from an opportunity to lend a hand.
As an emerging business leader, Rucker cohosted press conferences and encouraged the Black community to get out and vote during the 2020 presidential election. After George Floyd’s untimely death, many Chicago area businesses were vandalized. This is when Rucker stepped in and cohosted an event at her restaurant where 33 Black businesses appealed to the community.
Looking Into 2021
As of February 2021, Rucker’s main goal is to open The Soul Shack for dine-in service, taking new safety measures into account. This means she would have to reconfigure the layout of the restaurant to allow for distancing, place new signs and booth dividers, as well as hire more servers.
But Rucker is also thinking ahead on how to expand her business and gain alternative revenue sources. She is working on bringing her ready to eat soul rolls to grocery store shelves. The Soul Shack soul rolls are a southern spin on an Asian egg roll. It contains mac and cheese, greens, yams, and a jerk chicken all rolled—vegan option also available—and fried into a tasty appetizer.
In the meantime, you can try the soul rolls and other soulful dishes to-go in Chicago through food ordering platforms such as Grubhub, Uber Eats and ChowNow. Check out The Soul Shack’s website for the full menu and hours and follow along on Instagram for additional restaurant and community updates.