Local business owner, Mr. Mark Walker, can easily be described as a visionary and innovator. His brand, Oooh Wee It Is!, reflects Walker’s dedication, hard work, and service to his customers and the Chicagoland community. As a result of his continued commitment and business expertise, he is one of this year’s recipients of the Chicago Defender Men of Excellence awards.
The Cooking and Business Bugs
Walker expressed that he has always had an interest in going into the restaurant business. His mother, the late Rev. Maxine Walker, was one of his biggest influences. “My mother was very knowledgeable about building businesses and developing longstanding relationships with business professionals and community leaders. She was an ordained minister, business woman, advisor, and community organizer who enjoyed preparing elaborate homemade, soulful dishes for her friends and special guests. Rev. Jessie Jackson, Jr. and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan were two of her closest friends,” he said. Walker considers Mr. Kham Beard (of the former Kham and Nate’s) another close family friend, as a mentor who helped shape his entrepreneurial foundation.
As his interest in the restaurant business grew, Walker briefly attended the Washburne Culinary School. “I was not interested in cooking – I knew how to cook. Instead, I was interested in the art of plating food,” he shared. With his love of cooking, he and his wife began developing recipes for dishes, such as Oooh Wee’s oxtails and pot roast dinners, and their famous Oooh Wee tea, all customer favorites. Walker provided, “Cooking is about seasoning food to taste – don’t cook food for you, cook it for other people.”
Oooh Wee on the Rise
As a lifelong member of the Chatham community, it was no surprise that Walker and his wife, Shae Walker, opted to bring the Oooh Wee brand “home.” Earlier this year, the Oooh Wee It Is! dine-in restaurant opened in the Chatham community. Since then, the restaurant has become a fast-growing gem of the community, bringing customers from across Chicago to enjoy brunch or dinner and listen to live music a couple of days a week. The Walkers also own a carryout Oooh Wee It Is! restaurant located in Burnham, Illinois.
Walker noted that there are plans to open two additional restaurants within the next three months – in the Wicker Park community at North and Damen and in the Beverly community at 111th and Longwood. The Wicker Park location will serve the same foods as the other restaurants and offer both dine-in and carryout service, as well as a full bar. The Beverly location will be a carryout and catering location. In addition, there are plans for two mobile hotboxes and one food truck. Because of this tremendous growth, a job fair is scheduled for Monday, August 30th from 1:00 – 2:00 at the Chatham restaurant located at 33 E. 83rd Street.
Walker provided that he is a staunch believer in giving back to the community. His community work includes working with My Block, My Hood to provide care packages and meals to local seniors for Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. In addition, Walker regularly participates in community outreach, advocates for and provides mentoring to teens and young adults, including his restaurant team. In addition, because he is committed to working with the alderman and the Chatham community to address concerns related to the restaurant, Walker shared that he is developing a community team to assist with resolving issues and concerns.
Building Entrepreneurs and Business Owners
During the past 18 months, we witnessed many people lose jobs and businesses. Yet, in this same timeframe, many small businesses have been developed. Yet, many in the Black community are unable to secure financing or are unsure of how to get financing for their businesses. I asked Walker what he believed to be one of the issues affecting the Black community in becoming entrepreneurs and business owners. He responded that “One of the issues is the lack of information and people holding on to information. There is no way that someone interested in going into business should have to go down a ‘dark alley’ to find it,” he provided. In addition, “There is an assumption going around that you need a lot of money, a good credit score, perfect education, years of wisdom under your belt, and more,” he said. Walker added, “The key is to start – on whatever level that looks like – just start.” Walker further stated that, “it is our responsibility to share information, engage in financial literacy programs, and to teach our children about the responsibilities of finances so that they will develop entrepreneurial skills.”
The Oooh Wee It Is! restaurants are located at 33 East 83rd Street and 2208 E. State Street, Burnham, IL. For information, call 872-244-7505 or visit www.ooohweeitis.org.
Donna Hammond is a contributing writer and seminarian. Follow her on Twitter @deelois623 and on Facebook, DeeLoisSpeaks.