After many false starts and stops, and the growing anticipation of Hyde Parkers, the Litehouse Whole Food Grill is finally open. A brief skimming of the Litehouse’s Facebook page reveals a long history of planned openings: in September 2011, the Litehouse announced, “The Litehouse Whole Food Grill, Hyde Park Chicago Coming Fall 2011.” Since then, would-be patrons have checked in every few months, wondering when the eatery would open. In May 2012, a Tweet went out: “Get ur taste buds ready…WE’RE OPENING THIS MONTH!!!!!!!! -Mr. Litehouse.” But the doors stayed closed, and as the months dragged on, rumors abounded.
For all the mystery surrounding his restaurant, Erik Rico Nance, alias Mr. Litehouse, is a remarkably open, friendly man. Clean-shaven and sturdy with an enthusiastic, boyish face, he’s just as comfortable behind the counter stuffing and folding wraps and burritos as he is chatting up customers. He moves easily from one side of the counter to the other, giving instructions to his staff, taking orders, greeting newcomers, and explaining the menu. On the subject of the Litehouse, Nance oscillated between well-worn, but catchy, slogans and a more personal, improvised narrative. One gets the sense that he both enjoys and is accustomed to putting his passion into words.
Nance grew up in Chicago and spent the summers of his childhood in Hyde Park. The neighborhood and its diversity made a huge impression on him. “It was like a whole other world to me. Where I grew up there wasn’t any diversity, not so many different people and different cultures. [Hyde Park] was like Disney World to me.”
Nance is a Christian and a believer in the Great Commission, which he describes as the duty “to go out into the world, and preach, which is another way of saying spreading the word about God, about Light, about Him, about Love, because, you know, God is Love. So my commission is to spread love, and the way that I decided, the way that I believe I was chosen to do that, is by opening a restaurant and providing the friendliest and the healthiest restaurant experience that someone can find.”
As for the protracted opening process, Nance quickly dispelled the mystery. “It cost more money than I thought it was going to cost,” he said. “And we made sure that everything was perfect. We’re happy with the time that we opened, even though we planned to open sooner.”
Nance believes that, in addition to whatever commercial services they might provide, local businesses should give back to their community. As a restaurant, the Litehouse is closed from Friday evening to Saturday evening in observance of the Sabbath, but Nance plans to make the space available during those times for free to local non-profits. “There are two different sides to Hyde Park,” he said. “There’s a very wealthy side, but there’s also the side of the impoverished. And on the side of the impoverished there’s a lot of violence.”
Nance himself has known two young people who were killed in violent crimes in or around Hyde Park, and believes that a lot of this violence is the result of a lack of cultivation of “vision” in young people. He envisions the Litehouse as a space for activities meant to keep youth off the streets, and to give them lessons and skills to help them craft a “vision” for their future. “[As of now] I have a graphic designer booked [Pashii Designs], a photography teacher booked [Fontinna Photography], and a local minister booked [City of God Christian Ministries],” Nance said. “If someone wants to do something that’s going to benefit the community, we’re all in.”
In addition to sharing the space, the Litehouse has two other charity initiatives. The first is called “Go Premium,” and gives customers the option to add an extra $2.50 charge onto their meal, to be matched by the restaurant and used to feed the hungry. The second, which Nance plans to implement in the near future, is called “Keep the Change and We’ll Change the World.” As the name suggests, customers will have the opportunity to donate their change to a fund that will be used to help defray the non-tuition costs of a college education for local students who are in need.
Today, the Litehouse is “finally” open for business, as a makeshift sign on the front admits. The space is small and sparsely decorated. (“Smile!”, a sign above the trash can commands; a large sign reading “LOVE” leans up against a brick wall). It’s mainly a take-out place, but the casual feel of the small seating area promotes conversation among people sitting or leaning up against the wall waiting for their food. And Hyde Parkers are enjoying the fare: last Saturday night, the Litehouse had to close early because the food ran out.
The breadth of the menu can be intimidating: there are dozens of different ingredients and toppings available in burrito, taco, wrap, salad, bowl, or pizza form. Thankfully, more often than not, Nance is there to greet new customers and explain the menu to them. One menu, “for the creative,” gives the customer free rein in choosing from among this vast assortment. “For the less creative,” Nance says, the Litehouse provides a menu of pre-tested combinations.
I can vouch for the “Santa Fe Fiesta” burrito, which is a flour or spinach tortilla filled with grilled streak, onions, red and green peppers, black beans, and corn. The corn and the grilled onions and peppers were sweet, and the steak was nicely blackened and crunchy. Other combinations, like the “Victorious Veggie,” still need a little tweaking: the ingredients were distributed such that part of the wrap contained only spinach, romaine, and jalapeÃ±os…which isn’t very different from eating straight jalapeÃ±os.
As far as sides go, Nance says that their fried green tomatoes are particularly popular. I tried the sweet potato fries, which were good, if a little too thick. A prospective eater should know, however, that the fries come with cinnamon on them, which, though it complemented the heavy, starchy taste of the fries nicely, was unexpected.
“We want to reinvent the face of fast food,” Nance said. “Our food is extremely flavorful, it is extremely good, but it’s also healthier than anything else out there on the market.” He imagines the Litehouse replacing conventional unhealthy, fat-filled fast food by providing a healthy and affordable alternative, thereby helping people achieve a better quality of life.
It’s no surprise, then, that Nance sees a connection between his restaurant and his faith. Coming through the front door, patrons are greeted by a softly-spoken “Welcome to the Lite.”