Food is love

by Matt Wan

The late lunch crowd at the Quench restaurant on 79th between Martin Luther King Drive and Cottage Grove Avenue silently munched away on turkey burgers and fries last Friday afternoon, their seriousness belying the vibrant burnt orange and yellow interior of the building. Outside, equally somber faces trudged by buildings with “for lease” signs displayed in their windows as classic soul tunes floated out of Quench and dispersed above the sidewalk. With a rush of cold air that accompanied the opening of the front door the diners’ eyes shifted toward the entrance as a tall, slender man sauntered in from the street and began coolly thanking all of his customers for their patronage. From his demeanor and the clients’ smiles alone, it became quite clear that this man, Quentin Love, owned the place in more ways than one.

A product of the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood where his restaurant Quench now sits, Quentin Love grew up in what is now considered a food desert–an area that lacks enough grocery stores to provide nutritious food to the population–and is brimming with unhealthy fast food joints instead. Despite this impediment, Love developed a passion for cooking at an early age that was rivaled only by his desire to become a barber. But faced with the prospect of graduating from high school and without the means to enact either of these dreams, Love and a close friend decided to enlist in the army. Just days after receiving his diploma, Love flew to California to start his training, and soon after found himself on the ground in Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm. His time overseas was cut short, however, when a friendly vehicle ran over his foot as he walked across camp to visit his high-school buddy.

Back stateside, Love became a successful barber and founded a community-minded non-profit called the Love Foundation. Through his work with this organization, Love became painfully aware of the complications of high unemployment in his community. Considering the continual scarcity of jobs and healthy meals for people in Grand Crossing, Love realized that a career change could help him fulfill his other dream while tackling community issues as well. After selling off his DVD collection one by one, Love had scraped together enough funds to open his first Quench restaurant in 2001. The no-pork, no-beef eatery was a big hit as a business model as well as a community institution; Love was providing jobs and wholesome alternatives to fast food by way of what he calls “the transitional diet to becoming a vegetarian.”

Bolstered by his first entrepreneurial success, Love opened a stir-fry restaurant called Black Wok, a Mexican restaurant called Fajitas, and a no-pork barbecue take-out joint called Honey Q’d, all of which flopped shortly after opening. Love attributes the failures to neighborhood and timing issues, but he also takes it personally. “It always sounds good to try something from scratch. Feels good too,” Love remembers. “When you just try it, there isn’t anybody to stop you.”

Tumultuous times followed, and Love found himself homeless. But after leasing out the spaces previously occupied by his failed ventures, Love was back in the game. He began opening several new Quench locations, all of which were resounding successes. Love has since created the I Love Food Group, a coalition of South Side African American restaurateurs who share the goal of empowering impoverished individuals with food choices and sharing economic prosperity with the community. “You should control the economics of your community,” Love asserts. “In our culture, there’s a gap; we don’t have that connection.”

After years of strife and success, the entrepreneur, musician, interior designer, artist, and barber still has more in the works. A new Quench location just opened, and Love plans to expand his burgeoning empire into the grocery business. “Everyday in business is something new. That’s innovation. You can do anything you put your mind to,” Love says. And he’s convinced that when put to good use, that kind of innovation can have a broader social impact. “In the mindset of serving the community, each person you help is a success. Thousands of people later, we’re working towards our goal.”

For a complete list of I Love Food Group Restaurants, visit http://www.ilovefoodgroup.com