Activism, community service part of business model at Virtue restaurant

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Virtue restaurant

From feeding first responders at hospitals to responsibly sourcing its food ingredients, Virtue is more than just a name for Mr. Garcia and his business partner, chef Erick Williams. It’s a business model and a way of life.

By Berk Oto, University of Chicago Laboratory High School

Peering through the windows at Virtue restaurant, the soft warm glow of orb lights illustrates the outline of magnolia flowers — a symbol of dignity and Southern hospitality — adorning the windows. The elegant-yet-homey interior of the restaurant with patrons breaking bread, sitting on carved-wood chairs, is a sight for sore eyes after escaping the usual Saturday-night tumult of 53rd Street. 

Anyone entering the establishment is greeted warmly by an unpretentiously dressed man who directs his full attention to escorting you to your table. After introducing themselves and asking for dietary preferences and restrictions, the waiter guides diners through the menu based on what they feel like eating, reciting the night’s specials from memory.

This is what Jesus Garcia, general manager of Virtue, wants every customer to experience when they visit the restaurant. 

“Every detail from the way we approach your table to pour water to the way our servers talk to customers is pre-arranged and planned surrounding our culture: it’s a culture of virtue,” he said.

From feeding first responders at hospitals to responsibly sourcing its food ingredients, Virtue is more than just a name for Mr. Garcia and his business partner, chef Erick Williams. It’s a business model and a way of life.

After working together for nearly a decade at MK restaurant, Mr. Williams decided to open his own restaurant with the goal of changing public perception of American Southern cuisine. To help with the opening and operation of the restaurant, Mr. Williams quickly asked Mr. Garcia to come on as a business partner.

“I didn’t hesitate for a second,” Mr. Garcia said. “At that time we really knew and trusted each other and I was excited about the idea. Southern cuisine, particularly Black Southern cuisine, is often seen as dirty or poor. By making excellent food and connecting it to this broader idea of virtue — which we are passionate about from our time at MK — we are helping change this wrong perception.”

Hyde Park locals and recent patrons may recognize the restaurant from the large posters on its windows in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Mr. Garcia, the initiative is part of Mr. Williams’ philosophy that the search for equality can be found through sharing a proper meal and finding common ground.

“They work for our health and safety and we provide them with food for a well-deserved break away from their difficult jobs,” Mr. Garcia said. “It’s interesting that all the worker hierarchies within them, like boss-employee, doctor-nurse, seem to break down when they gather together for a good meal.”

The restaurant’s philosophy of dignity and respect extends to the sourcing of their ingredients and the way they treat their employees.

“That farmer that needs you to buy his bell peppers is the same as the homeless guy on the street asking for money,” Mr. Williams said during a July 2019 interview with the New York Times about how Black chefs are challenging stereotypes in the dining industry. “Everybody’s just trying to get their needs met.”

According to Mr. Garcia, Mr. Williams takes great care and pride in sourcing his food from responsible and sustainable farms run by individual farmers.

“Of course our ingredients and our employees are the lifeblood of our restaurant,” he said. “We take the most care in preserving the quality of those two things especially.”

Mr. Garcia and Mr. Williams emphasize worker input into the restaurant, often holding meetings and sessions to strategize on how to improve the diner experience. 

“We make sure to help and support our workers’ passions however we can,” Mr. Garcia said. “That’s how both Erick and I started. I was a server and I was just asking for a chance, I was blessed enough to get a lot of chances to work and prove myself.”

According to Mr. Garcia, this engagement contributes to the tight-knit nature of the team and is how he and Mr. Williams closely tailor Virtue’s unique culture.

“So now, we either give our team the opportunity to provide input in making the restaurant more in line with their passions, or we give them the tools and experiences necessary for their dream jobs,” Mr. Garcia said. “For us, all this comes back to the virtue of dignity.”

The axiomatic virtues of dignity and respect for their team and community are deeply embedded into the day-to-day operations of Virtue restaurant.

“Of course we’ve been blessed enough to receive lots of community support and love,” Mr. Garcia said. “But there’s never been a conflict between the business and our dedication to service.”

Recently the restaurant has focused on providing quality meals to frontline workers, but when pandemic is over they plan to go back to working with local groups, charities and organizations to give back to the needy in our community. 

Mr. Garcia said, “It’s not like an add-on for us. Service is a cost of doing business and it complements our business model.”

This story was originally published on U-High Midway on February 24, 2021.