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Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen serves the heart and soul of South Side community

“When you love what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work at all,” says chef/owner James Sanders.

Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen Founder James Sanders poses in the restaurant in Gresham Wednesday morning July 29, 2020. Sanders, whose business partner died of COVID-19, distributes about 900 meals per day to those in need in rehabilitations centers across Chicago. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen Founder James Sanders poses in the restaurant in Gresham. Sanders distributes about 900 meals per day to those in need in rehabilitations centers across Chicago. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

James Sanders kicked off 2020 with a new venture: opening a restaurant.

Sanders, 45, of Beverly, had already been running Fuze Catering out of a kitchen in Gresham, but he long dreamed of opening a restaurant in the South Side space.

Enter Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen, at 8052 S. Racine Avenue, serving up fresh chicken and fish.

“We’re in a food desert where I’m located,” Sanders said. “What I want to do is provide something besides just fried chicken and french fries.”

The restaurant’s Nashville Hot chicken sandwich (with chicken brined for 12 to 16 hours and then covered with a dry marinade) and blackened catfish (made with a “bomb” seasoning) were immediate favorites in the community, the chef said. But within months of opening Dirty Birds, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Sanders closed the restaurant in March and plans to reopen the week of Aug. 10.

Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen founder James Sanders grills chicken in the restaurant in Gresham Wednesday morning July 29, 2020. Sanders, whose business partner died of COVID-19, distributes about 900 meals per day to those in need in rehabilitations centers across Chicago. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen founder James Sanders grills chicken in the restaurant.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“At first, I was one of the people who really was skeptical about the whole COVID thing, thinking it was just a common cold, until one of my customers died,” Sanders said. “It was extremely sad.”

New to the menu when Dirty Birds reopens will be jumbo smoked turkey legs and brick chicken, which is cooked on a flat top grill with a brick on top of it, Sanders said. Customers can also get their fan favorites like the Nashville Hot chicken sandwich or chicken and red velvet waffles, a twist on the traditional dish. The kitchen cooks everything fresh daily, down to the Southern-style sides like six-cheese mac and cheese and fried green tomatoes. Meals range between $10 and $14, Sanders said, and sandwiches come with at least one side.

Sanders and his kitchen crew didn’t stop cooking up fresh meals in the past few months during the pandemic, however, instead finding new avenues to feed the community. From June 16 to 27, Dirty Birds partnered with Chicago Delivers and the Foles Believe Foundation to provide more than 1,800 warm, fresh meals to Chicagoans.

James Sanders and staff at Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen distributed more than 1,800 meals over two weeks through a partnership Chicago Delivers.
James Sanders and staff at Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen distributed more than 1,800 meals over two weeks through a partnership Chicago Delivers.
Myron Hicks/Provided by Chicago Delivers

Pastor Charlie Dates of Progressive Baptist Church just outside Guaranteed Rate Field launched Chicago Delivers in the wake of the pandemic. Originally, the organization aimed to provide gift cards for grocery delivery services to people receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), since people couldn’t use the benefits to place delivery orders, Dates said.

Even after distributing gift cards, Dates said there was still work to be done to feed the community, one of many ways to “celebrate that they’re made in the likeness of God.” Chicago Delivers also wanted to support Black-owned restaurants, so they partnered with Dirty Birds in a second phase of their food distribution in June to provide hot meals to anyone visiting the church’s parking lot. The pastor knew Sanders for years and his food to be “reliably tasty,” so Dirty Birds was a natural fit for the organization, Dates said.

“Chef James [Sanders], he understands the mission. He’s looking for an opportunity to serve,” Dates said. “Whatever we pay him, he delivers more food than we’re paying for.”

Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen provided more than 1,800 warm, fresh meals to Chicagoans through a partnership with Chicago Delivers.
Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen provided more than 1,800 warm, fresh meals to Chicagoans through a partnership with Chicago Delivers.
Myron Hicks/Provided by Chicago Delivers

Anyone could take as many meals as they needed to feed their households without providing an explanation, said Shonta Connolly, operations director for Chicago Delivers.

“People do not have to feel as if they’ve given up their humanity or their dignity,” Connolly said. “They come and get food without us knowing their situations.”

Chicago Delivers is now working to acquire a food truck to and start a third phase of its food meal distribution program (phase two ended in June) throughout the city, Connolly said.

Sanders is still feeding the community through his catering company. He and his staff are currently making 900 meals daily for 300 residents at a Chicago drug rehabilitation center.

The exterior of Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen in Gresham is seen in this photo Wednesday morning July 29, 2020. James Sanders, the founder of Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen, distributes about 900 meals per day to those in need in rehabilitations centers across Chicago. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Chef James Sanders is photographed outside his Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen in Gresham.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Dishing out 6,300 meals a week demands early mornings and late evenings in the kitchen, Sanders said. He hired four new kitchen staff from a restaurant that’s permanently closed because of the pandemic.

Sanders’ alarm goes off promptly at 2:30 a.m., and he aims to be in the kitchen within an hour to start preparing fresh biscuits, cornbread and chicken. After a long day of baking, brining and blackening, the kitchen finally wraps things up around 8 p.m., and Sanders said he spends an hour or two with his daughters, 11 and 14, before heading to bed by 10 p.m.

“The older I get, I’m not a fan of the hours, working like 16 hours a day,” Sanders said. “Still, it doesn’t feel like work. When you love what you’re doing, it doesn't feel like work at all.”