In August, Kenny Johnson opened Bureau Bar and Restaurant in South Loop, joining a small cohort of bars and restaurants that have debuted during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“The reaction of us opening has been good, but obviously, our business is way, way down, just like everybody else’s business is,” says Johnson. “You know, we wouldn’t have wished this on anyone. But we try to do what we can and keep people working.”
Johnson describes his new bar as being an even “swankier” iteration of his other Bureau locations — one in Little Italy, which has closed permanently, and a South Loop location (rebranded as 16th Street Bar, but still known as Little Bureau Bar) which is temporarily closed for renovations. Even within the framework of COVID-19 safety measures that include temperature checks upon entry, reduced seating capacity, and table time limits, Johnson has been able to harness his brand of good vibes. He designed the new Bureau to be a home away from home, a third place, decked out with plush lounges, a pool table, and plenty of TVs. The menu boasts a range of bar staples and quintessential soul-food dishes like Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, mac and cheese, and collard greens. While the full menu can be ordered for takeout, Johnson hopes guests will stay awhile. “We also have a DJ booth that sets the vibe of the room on a nightly basis,” he says. Pandemic or not, Johnson remains the master of (socially distant) ceremonies.
In the Before Times, when it wasn’t unusual to chat up strangers in person, conversations would inevitably lead to naming your bar. And in Chicago, to name your bar offers a tell that peels back layers, along the same vein as “Which high school did you go to?” Bars are neighborhood cornerstones, and Black-owned bars can be a homecoming for the Black community. Today’s Black-owned bars carry the spirit of yesterday’s juke joints; created out of necessity, they are cultural institutions where food, drink, and music meld together to become a welcome oasis for Black folks while graciously welcoming all. For Johnson, hospitality has been his specialty for many years.
Before becoming a bar owner, Johnson, who also owns the South Loop lounge Sage Room, was a promoter for some of Chicago’s well-known bars and clubs in neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and River North. It’s common practice and a seemingly innocuous marketing tool for bar and club owners to hire promoters to boost sales on otherwise slow and unprofitable days. Black promoters are sought out, often with the intent of bringing in Black patrons. “They don’t mind doing a ‘Black night’ at their places, because the Black consumer spends a lot of money, and that’s why I was successful doing nights at people’s places. But I got tired of that,” says Johnson. “And I saw how they treated other Black promoters, and it wasn’t right. And to this day it isn’t right.
They use Black promoters to stay open, frankly. A lot of places were always on the verge of shutting down until they had a Black promoter come in and save them and make them thousands and thousands of dollars.” In the hospitality industry, it’s just one facet of an unfair and inequitable system.
It’s been said that Chicago’s nightlife scene is a microcosm of its race relations. There’s a well-documented history of Black consumers being racially profiled and discriminated against in social hubs like River North. Last June, in an event organized by the hospitality-centered social justice group, End Chicago Nightlife Racism, 50 Black promoters, club owners, and bar owners marched against the covert and overt racism that many nightlife industry leaders have chosen to ignore. While the march focused on local reform, their message was part of the much broader, national conversation about systemic racism — driven by multiple recent police killings — now happening.
Johnson says bar owners have missed opportunities to transform the local industry and bring toxic culture to an end. He points to a strategy where operators restructure equity by building on their already established partnerships with Black promoters, offering up an ownership stake in the business. It’s the type of forward-thinking reimagining that some restaurant owners have been developing in wake of the racial and gender equality movements. But Johnson says those conversations never happened, and he doubts they ever will. So he decided to open a bar of his own.
Most operators expect hurdles when opening a bar: financial constraints or trouble finding and keeping staff are typical. But in the process of Johnson opening his first tavern, 16th Street Bar, he encountered a stunning barrier. While much attention was paid toward downtown businesses impacted by looting over the summer, a great many locally owned and operated small businesses were damaged across the entire city. Johnson’s bar is included in the tally. In an Instagram post, Johnson talks about the damage to his bar and goes on to describe how a white neighbor in the bar’s building essentially halted its very opening several years ago. “[The neighbor] had never met me and never been in the place, but they literally wrote a letter [to the city] saying ‘they’re going to have gang activity, they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that,’ because I am Black,” Johnson tells Eater. “They stopped us for nine months. I had to appeal it, I had to get lawyers involved. It was a whole mess just because they only saw the color of my skin.” As it turns out, there’s a precedent of neighbors — residents and business owners — tactically weaponizing city bureaucracy and leveraging gatekeepers to keep Black-owned establishments from opening in predominantly white neighborhoods.
End Chicago Nightlife Racism reminds us that insidious moves like holding up licenses are nothing new. On Instagram, they shared a clip of a 2011 WTTW-Chicago Chicago Tonight interview with Raymond Lambert, a co-owner of the iconic All Jokes Aside comedy club known for showcasing would-be legends like Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, and Steve Harvey in the 1990s. In the full segment, it’s revealed that Lambert was in the process of relocating the club from the rapidly gentrifying South Loop to a new space in River North, only to face a swath of business owners in the neighborhood who’d rallied together to block his liquor license. After a two-year-long battle, Lambert received his license, but he lost more than $1 million in the process. “You can’t underestimate being Black and being an entrepreneur,” Lambert says in the interview. “I probably underestimated the length at which folks would go to to keep me out of that neighborhood.”
“People love everything about us. But they don’t love us,” says Josh Davis, beverage director at 16th Street Bar and the founder of Brown and Balanced, an organization that spotlights Black and brown beverage professionals. He points to the adoration and appropriation of Black culture as an example. “And unfortunately there are so many stereotypes put on us. There are so many preconceived notions of how it’s going to be when we come in the neighborhood that — it’s like redlining — like you want Black businesses because they are fruitful and they are going to make money, but we only want them in these areas. And that’s what I feel like is happening across the country.”
The recent movement to support Black-owned businesses, prompted by racial justice protests nationwide, has given a much-needed boost to a segment that that has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. But many Black business owners are looking beyond stopgap measures and taking on a macro perspective. “Why aren’t there any Black-owned bars downtown?” Johnson asks. Downtown Chicago is seen by some as being yet another problematic statute that the city has been complicit in protecting. “Anybody who wants to come downtown and open up a restaurant should be able to. Anybody who wants to come in there, and invest their time, and their money, and go through this hard-ass business should be allowed to,” says Johnson.
Davis, however, believes Black business owners shouldn’t even bother with downtown and should invest in neighborhoods where they’ll be celebrated. “Forget general market, forget trying to fit into the downtown area,” says Davis. “Let’s build our community up and give us places in our community. Instead of us always having to conform and having to step and fetch and acquiesce to be in their neighborhood. Naw. I don’t want that.” What he’s describing is liberation. Davis notes a few stalwart Black-owned bars on the South Side — Leo’s Den in Grand Crossing, Red Peppers, and Murphy’s Lounge both in Chatham — bars that he supports.
Opening a new bar during the COVID-19 pandemic seems risky for anyone. Yet, in a strange way, the opening of Bureau Bar during this period of racial reckoning may be Johnson’s full-circle moment. On a recent Sunday, brunch favorites returned as TV screens glowed with Chicago Bears football. After boycotting the NFL three years ago in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick — an act for which Johnson received death threats — football was back. The overwhelming support he received during the boycott came from where it always has: “African Americans have been supporting me since the day I moved to Chicago,” he says.
Still, he remembers the response he received when he called upon non-Black bar owners across the city to join him in protest. They declined.
“I did not get support from white bar owners. I said, ‘Why don’t we all do this? None of y’all are sports bars, you have football playing in the background.’” Johnson says. “Nope, people didn’t want to do it. It takes a different kind of person to take that kind of a chance.”
So when black squares peppered his social media timeline a few months ago, he was reminded of the ways in which performative allyship shows up in the absence of true partnership. As the seasons change and a new year looms, one wonders about this juncture in a city of neighborhoods — what does it mean to be neighborly? For Johnson, real change starts with the people.