When Evelyn Shelton chose the location for her restaurant, friends and even some family thought she was crazy.

“Everyone I talked to said, ‘55th and State? Really?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, really,’” Shelton said, laughing. “55th and State has nowhere to go but up. This was one of the final locations for the Obama library and for the Olympic bid. So if it’s good enough for that, it’s good enough for me.”

Since it opened in May, Shelton’s namesake restaurant Evelyn’s Food Love has served up more than lunch specials and soul food staples.

By employing people from the community and supplying a homey atmosphere, Shelton is also serving up a bit of change and revitalization to the Washington Park neighborhood by giving people a place to go. Her goals and emphasis on reshaping the community are something Small Business Saturday, celebrated Nov. 25, also focuses on.

In Illinois, small businesses comprise 46 percent of the state’s private workforce and more than 98 percent of all businesses, according to the 2017 Illinois Small Business Profile. They’re vital to the state’s economic infrastructure, but for Shelton, locally owned businesses are important for reshaping and boosting neighborhood economies.

“I strongly believe that this is how we revitalize neighborhoods in our communities that are in need of economic development,” Shelton said. “Starting new businesses in areas that need it, and then hiring locally is how we turn some of the negative in our city into something positive. I think people genuinely want to do well, and they will if you give them the chance.”

Chalkboard menus at Evelyn’s Food Love detail what customers can expect each day. Wednesdays, they serve up jerk chicken with a rub made in house. Thursdays are for meatloaf, and Fridays for seafood.

On Saturdays, they often serve barbecue, but it’s the Sunday menu that has people lining up before Shelton’s restaurant even opens for collard greens, fried chicken, mac and cheese, and a peach cobbler you’d think was “made by somebody’s grandmother,” Shelton says of Chef LaMar Johnson’s recipe, the same one he’s been using since he was 10.

The road to establishing Evelyn’s Food Love wasn’t an easy one. Pivoting from over a decade in the culinary industry, Shelton was turned down for loans initially.

She connected with the Women’s Business Development Center who then recommended she reach out to the Local Initiatives Support Corp. The rest, she says, is history.

Steve Hall, vice president of small business lending for LISC, said the group’s goal is to help women, veterans and minorities — who often have a harder time getting loans — get the assistance they need. Without it, Hall said, many businesses fail within their first year.

“Our goal is to invest in low- and moderate-income communities to give people opportunities to set up businesses and help people get jobs, which creates communities that they not only live in but shop in, too,” Hall said. “Evelyn’s project fit that for us.”

Rickita Perkins, 19, fries chicken for customers at Evelyn’s Food Love. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

Rickita Perkins, who graduated from Simeon Career Academy’s culinary program earlier this year, is one of Shelton’s recent hires. Perkins said the job has helped her become a better problem solver and has provided her a support system.

“They take their time,” Perkins said of her colleagues. “In other jobs, it’s about just cooking, but here it’s about life and learning something from obstacles you run into and taking that out of the kitchen.”

Though Evelyn’s Food Love flew under the radar when it first opened, the number of regular customers is growing and, thanks to recent news coverage, people are beginning to trickle in from other neighborhoods. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, though the occasional negative comment is made.

Shelton takes it all in stride.

“Our personal mission is to do as well as we can, as often as we can, for as long as we can in this community and any others that may need our support,” Shelton said. “We know we can’t please everybody, but it’s been a great project with great supporters and partners, and we would like to do partnerships with likeminded places. It’ll be interesting to see where we are a year from now.”