Faces of 53rd Street: Erik “Rico” Nance

When you meet Erik Nance, he might just give you a hug instead of a handshake. The owner of Hyde Park’s LiteHouse Whole Food Grill at 1373 E. 53rd Street and Mikkey’s Retro Grill at 5319 S. Hyde Park Boulevard has a warmth and generosity of spirit that are immediately evident when you talk to him. It is also evident in his businesses.

LiteHouse is known for its healthy tacos, pizzas, wraps, and burritos made to order with fresh ingredients, but it is also noteworthy for providing about 20-30 free meals a day to the less fortunate, who order from the regular menu with the rest of the customers. Customers who want to support the LiteHouse mission have the option to “go premium,” and add $2.50 to their bill to pay for others’ free meals. Nance also serves as a mentor to his employees, some of whom were formerly homeless or struggled with addiction issues.

A resident of the South Loop, husband, and father of four children ages 5-12, Nance spent his summers in Hyde Park with his aunt and grew up in the Morgan Park neighborhood. The Apostolic Church of God on Dorchester Avenue named him “Dad of the Year” in 2015.

The 53rd Street Blog recently sat down with Nance to learn what led him to open his two local restaurants and strive to be such a positive force in the neighborhood.

What led you to open LiteHouse Whole Food Grill?

“I was on the lakefront one day near La Rabida in Jackson Park, and I was walking and praying when the vision for the LiteHouse came to me, though I didn’t know where it would be or when it might happen. Later I was at Zberry on 53rd Street when I looked across the street and saw a vacancy sign on the storefront. I thought it would be the perfect location. I saw the space and that was it. I didn’t have any experience in the restaurant industry, but the owner of the building said he would rent it to me anyway. That was three years ago, and in that time we’ve brought fresh, healthy, fast food to the community, while also serving 20,000 meals to the homeless and less fortunate.”

How did the community service aspect of the LiteHouse begin?

“One of our young employees was taking the trash out when he saw a homeless man going through the restaurant’s garbage containers. The man asked our employee if he could have permission to take some food from the trash, and our employee – he was only 18 years old, I think – came in to ask me if he could pay for the man’s meal with his own money. I told him to invite the man inside for a real meal for free. Initially he didn’t want to come in and felt like he wasn’t good enough, but I came out and told him, ‘You’re a human being – we love you – you’re welcome here.’ He had a healthy meal and told us, ‘I feel like a human again.’ That was so moving to me, and I told him to tell his friends that we would provide fresh, healthy, all-natural food for free.  That’s how our mission began. Now I encourage other restaurant owners I know to do the same.”

What led you to open Mikkey’s Retro Grill?

“I try to eat healthy as much as possible, but I started thinking about a place where you could have a ‘cheat day’ with all natural burgers, fries, and wings. I was looking at used restaurant equipment at the now-closed South Side Shrimp location, and the owner, Peter Cassel from Mac Properties, asked if I might want to rent it. I decided to open the restaurant with my older brother, Mikkel, who we always called Mikkey, and named the restaurant after him. Since the space had already been a restaurant it was easy to open it in just a few months. I didn’t have any expectations, but we sold 13,000 meals in the first month alone. We didn’t have enough employees in the beginning to keep up with the demand, but we’re staffed up now and people have been loving the restaurant and the food.”

How many people do the two restaurants employ? Are any from Hyde Park or the South Side?

“I employ about 40 people total – 18 at the LiteHouse and 22 at Mikkey’s, and all are from Hyde Park or the South Side. A lot of my employees are at-risk youth, and for some of them, I’m the first boss they ever had. Everyone deserves a chance, but I also hold them accountable – you’ve got to be on time and do your job well or you can’t stay on.”

What is the best part of being a local business owner and employer in the community?

“I recognize that some of my employees have grown up without a father figure, and I can be really strict with them – I once had a person come to an interview 20 minutes late and I would not give him the job. I told him to come back when he was ready to be responsible, because as a business owner, I can’t have people coming to work whenever they want – other people are counting on them. I want my employees to learn the ‘don’t be late’ model at a young age, to make them successful as they get older. I have a 23-year old employee who is going to be promoted soon to manager of the LiteHouse, and I am really proud of him. He used to be homeless and was stealing food to provide for his younger brother. They both came into the LiteHouse for a meal, and when I saw him in line, there was just something about him, and I asked him if he needed a job. I hired him on the spot, and this changed his path. I know for a fact that since he is now working, he has stopped stealing.”

What is your favorite thing about 53rd Street?

“To me, 53rd Street equals life. It’s a microcosm of the world, with poor, middle class, and wealthy people – white and black together on the street – all with the same chance to influence the world. I love the feeling on the street – people still say ‘hello,’ and there’s no other block like this in the world. People like Louis Farrakhan, Barack Obama, Toni Preckwinkle, and Jesse Jackson have all walked on 53rd Street, and that is an inspiration.”

What are your thoughts about Hyde Park?

“Hyde Park tells two different tales, and there are two sides to living here. You’ve got the political aspect; and the doctors, lawyers, and professors; every aspect of religion from the Nation of Islam to Hinduism; but you’ve also got at-risk kids – some of them poor and abused, with parents on drugs and without food in the house. Some of these kids have no place to go – no jobs, no training, and they don’t know what to do to get into college. They are literally lost. I have a very smart young woman working at Mikkey’s flipping burgers – I could tell right away how intelligent she is, and when I found out she got a 24 on the ACT, I made it my mission to get her to go to college. I’m good at sensing people’s talents and gifts – that’s what I’m called to do – to help them reach their potential in the world. I believe that if you build these lives to some degree, they can go out and build other lives; they just need opportunity. I’m able to touch the lives of my employees and customers, giving them the love they might not have had before and a warm place to sit when they didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Photo courtesy of Erik Nance