Chicago is a city of food. This is a fact that can’t be denied. Travel anywhere around the city and you will find restaurants serving the best Italian beefs, tacos, pizza and fried chicken the city has to offer. Those choices may taste great, but are not necessarily the most healthy. Eric Nance has provided a healthy option through his restaurant Litehouse. His establishment not only feeds the body, but also the soul. We talked to Nance about his vision, motivation and the importance of God in what he does.
Tell us about your start in the restaurant business.
My start in the restaurant business came from my desire to minister to people in a different way. I used to be a pastor and a youth pastor at a few churches and I knew God wanted me to do something different from the traditional form of ministry. So one night while in prayer, God laid on my heart Litehouse. After that I found a location, then along with my wife and family a menu was designed, and we opened up Litehouse Whole Food Grill. Now we’ve opened up Mikkey’s Retro Grill and are planning on opening up another restaurant after that. After it’s all said and done, the restaurants are conduits to a new form of ministry for me, to be able to love on the homeless, to love on the people who come through the doors, love on the employees and try to do right by the community and everyone we encounter.
How did the genesis for Litehouse’s concept come about?
The beginning of Litehouse came from my family. There are six of us in my house, my wife and our four children and we would have our family members over all the time. We all have a variety of taste and eating habits, and it became expensive to provide food for vegetarians, pescatarian, and meatetarians [meatetarian is a word Erick Nance created to explain his love for meat]. I realized I had to open up a restaurant to address the needs of families who are struggling with this problem of diverse eating habits of family members with one person wanting to go here and the other wants to go somewhere else. So I wanted to create a place where people can go and have good options of all-natural foods with the same high standards that my wife sets for our household. And we did that by creating a menu of various wraps and bowls that highlight vegan options like tofu and meat options like chicken, sides of sweet potato fries and so much more under the same roof.
Has the neighborhood been especially receptive to the restaurant, and especially the food?
The Hyde Park neighborhood has been great, because it’s home for us; Litehouse Whole Food Grill and Mikkey’s Retro Grill [are] Hyde Park made. And as the neighborhood grows, the support for us grows. I mean, they’ve been with us with our ups and downs. I didn’t know the restaurant business when we first opened up, I just jumped into it and I had some help but not a lot in this arena. The truth of the matter it was trial by fire and initially we were not that successful in our process, we were doing a lot of things wrong and we were failing because of it. The customer traffic was there, but I wasn’t serving them the way that I envisioned it being done and thankfully the community was patient while we got our process down pack and thing things in order. We went from seeing about 100 people a day to to now over 400 people a day with continued growth, and my goal is to continue to get better and better for this community and the world.
In addition to becoming a staple for fast and healthy food options in the Hyde Park neighborhood, you’ve also taken up some community-focused initiatives, such as feeding and clothing some of the homeless people in the neighborhood for free. Was that something you always intended to do once you got the restaurant up and running?
Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious thought, it’s who I am as a Christian. Being a Christian means I follow Christ, I want to be like Jesus, I want to live like Christ. So when someone says they are hungry, what else am I supposed to do? I have to feed them, I’m a Christian and that’s what Christians are supposed to do. Someone needs a place and I have a room? I’m going to sacrifice charging $900 a month in rent and give that room to a homeless person. And it’s not an easy journey, there are days where the first 20 people that walk into the restaurant are homeless people, but instead of turning them away I remind myself that there is a God who sees all and to me it’s worth the sacrifice. Being a Christian isn’t easy, but to me it’s worth it.
You’ve also made it a point to put a number of ex-offenders to work. Talk about the importance of doing so.
It all goes back to my faith and understanding the ways of God. God called ex-offenders to do His work; look at Abraham who was a killer and so was Moses who was a convicted murderer who got kicked out of Egypt and yet God used him. When Christ was in the Garden of Gethsemane and Peter pulled out a sword and cut a man’s ear off. I’m not afraid of someone who may have had a violent past or who has a past as criminal. Just today I met a man who just got out of jail yesterday, he spent the night in a crack-house because he didn’t have anywhere else to go. I heard his story and I told him that he could come work and hopefully he could change his life. I hired him on the spot and he started working this morning and returning this evening to work again. If God can use felons, then why can’t I? I think if the world understood that concept then maybe people will change for the better.
Do you have a favorite motto as far as customer service or business in general is concerned?
Treat everyone like President Obama. That’s my favorite motto, because if President Obama was here, people would go out [of] their way to get his order right, if Present Obama was here you would greet him, if he was here you would make sure he’s the happiest customer that ever walked through that door and the person, homeless or not, that walks through that door should be treated the same way you would treat President Obama. That mindset is not an option as an employee as it’s very important to live by the Word of God that says “let the last be first and the first be last.” We’re not looking to provide good service to just the people with money, we want to give everyone that Presidential experience, that’s my mindset to treat everyone the same because that’s how God loves.
Name one book that has made an impact on your life and why?
Look, I’m not trying to sound cliche’ or as if I have my head in the sky. I read a lot of books, but there’s only one that really impacts me and I’m sure you know what that is based off the rest of the interview. Yes, that book is the Holy Bible, and more specifically it’s the book of James: found in the Bible. It has taught some very important lessons that I really needed in order to succeed in personally and even in business. 1. Patience. Especially during trials. It’s important to let patience rule while trials run their course. 2. To endure temptations — it’s easy to give up in the midst of adversity, especially in business or to purchase cheaper products or just doing the right thing whether you like it or not, or it’s financially beneficial or not. For example us closing on The Lord’s Sabbath or Feast days, we hear the complaints and yes it’s tempting to be open. Yet I have to stay in God’s will and often time gives us an opportunity to witness and minister to people. 3. Faith without works is dead. You have to put your faith in action. No matter what, stand on faith and move when God says move. If you do, results are soon to come.
What’s next for Litehouse Whole Food Grill?
Like I mentioned before, continued growth which includes opening new restaurants. My brother and I, our families, just opened up Mikkey’s Retro Grill and within our first month we serviced over 15,000 people and Litehouse is still servicing over 9,000 per month. This Summer we have a Jerk Shack opening up on 51st and Cottage Grove, Mikkey’s Grill will be opening up in the Roosevelt Collections Shopping Center in the South Loop and Litehouse Whole Food Grill will be opening up a downtown Chicago location as well. So, we’re growing and getting better as a company and I’m getting better as a leader.
In addition to those ventures, we also have a project that’s important to me and that’s the WEN Project, a non-for-profit sector of the food group. We’re looking to raise funds to fight homelessness, not only to fight it, but it’s my goal to end it. In a few months we will be having our first fundraiser to start housing people because the truth of the matter [is that] those who are homeless need to learn about credit, they need to get their licences, they need help, a place to stay and a program they can come to to learn how to become better people in this society. Once you do that then we can implement them into the work force, checking in on them to encourage their progress. This is how you battle not only homelessness, but the violence in Chicago. These kids out here robbing people are looking for better opportunities so if I get them to give up a gun for a spatula or convince them to join my crew instead of a gang, then if we can turn just 1 life around then we’ve done our job. Hopefully the world thinks like me and we can get some help in raising funds to change one community at a time. I just want to be a vessel, I want my businesses to be a vessel for change, so that’w what’s next for Litehouse Whole Food Grill in addition to just making it a household name. We’re already doing the same numbers that the big-name, fast-food restaurants are doing, being in the five casual restaurants, and we just have to continue to grow.
LiteHouse Whole Food Grill
1373 E 53rd St, Chicago, IL 60615