North Lawndale restaurant owner Louise ‘Momma Lue’ Harper retiring after 60 years
West Siders continue to support the New Pine Valley Restaurant owner, who came from Mississippi and worked her way up. Some made sure the place was untouched during May’s unrest.
Since Louise Harper took over North Lawndale’s New Pine Valley Restaurant, 1600 S. Pulaski Rd., in 1975, she’s stuck to a daily routine.
Open at 3 a.m. Work till 5:30 p.m. Every day. Seven days a week.
That’s about to change. Harper, 77, “Momma Lue” to longtime customers, is retiring.
“I ain’t gonna never forget it here,” said Harper, a Lexington, Mississippi, native who came to Chicago in 1962, looking for work and a better way than what she’d been doing — picking cotton. “All the years — 60 year, here. … I was tired of working in the fields from sunup to sundown, so I decided to leave.
“I couldn’t find anything when I got to Chicago, so I had to go back home to Mississippi,” Harper said. “I said: ‘I’m going back to Chicago — I don’t want to stay here anymore’ ‘Daddy made me go back to the fields — I didn’t want to do that. I went back to Chicago, and I come to the people here, and they hired me. They said: ‘Let us try you out’ — they kept me until they got ready to retire. They said: ‘What are you gonna do now ,all the years you have been with us?’
“I went home, and I prayed. I asked God to bless me — help me in this situation I’m going through, and he gave me a mind to be successful. He he told me to sell your house. I sold my house and bought this restaurant. That’s where I’ve been this entire time.”
New Pine Valley’s menu is as old-school as it can get. Cheeseburgers cost $1.35 — $4.00 with bacon — and the soup of the day is $3.50.
Unlike most restaurants, Harper serves her burgers with bread, not buns, with a side of crinkle-cut fries — like they might have at home.
Harper, who worked at the restaurant in various capacities, including waitressing, said some of her favorite items to cook are chicken and dressing, hamhocks, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler.
She learned to cook as she worked her way up at the restaurant.
In May, as many businesses were looted during protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, New Pine Valley was unscathed.
Customers and employees “make sure everybody pays me,” Harper said. “ ‘Momma, did they pay you? Momma, you got your money?’ they would say.”
“I’m going to miss her her,” said Rodney Dorsey, a cook at New Pine Valley since 2016. “She’s known me since I was 10 years old. Everyone in the neighborhood respects her. When the looting happened, no one was going to mess with her. She’s been in the neighborhood too long.”
Harper has served generations of West Siders. She’s also gotten to meet a few luminaries — like Muhammad Ali (he ordered a cheeseburger) and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who briefly lived in the neighborhood.
“When [King and his associates] came by, I made sure I had everything ready for them,” Harper said. “They would come by for breakfast, and they would have bacon, sausage, ham. And sometimes, when it wasn’t enough, they would order more.”
Once she shifts from business owner to retiree, she plans to visit family in Florida and Los Angeles. After that, for the first time in decades, her schedule is pretty much wide open.
“I saw six generations grew up over here, and they are fond of me — they call me ‘Momma,’ Harper said. “All the kids around here call me ‘Momma.’ I know I’m going to miss them. But I got to get on with my life.”