When you're in the mood for some filling, affordable comfort food, nothing beats Lonnie's Best Taste of Chicago in St. Matthews. Ask any Trinity student or alumni - not to mention anyone who loves St. Matthew's Little League. You won't find a transplant more passionate about his love for this city. I sat down with founder Lonnie Edwards to ask how the Taste of Chicago landed in Louisville.
MORE THAN WHEAT
"I came down here as a regional manager for Sprint Corporation. They were relocating to Louisville. Well, the only things we knew about Louisville were Muhammad Ali and the Derby. They put us up at the Seelbach, gave us a tour, drove us around town, and I fell in love. Mind you, I had to convince my wife it's not just wheat down here, it's not just Muhammad Ali and the Derby. It's a growing city, a place that would be really great for our buisiness and for our kids.
"That was 1996. They both did really well here. One just turned 21, the other is 25. My oldest got her undergrad from UK and Masters from U of L. My youngest is in the Speed program working on her Master's in Engineering. We had our kids in private school in Chicago. Well, the schools here were equivalent to those private schools. We didn't have to pay for their education because Louisville's focus is family and education. We love that about Louisville. Bottom line - singles come here, they really don't last. Families come here and they stay. Seriously."
However, what Louisville lacks in opportunities for singles, it more than makes up for in amazing opportunities for both families and foodies.
Lonnie said, "We found out that this was a place that didn't have the food we grew up with. People here like to eat. We figured if good is good, we can take good anywhere. We brought that good from Chicago to Louisville."
CHANGING THE CULTURE OF EATING
"In Chicago, the hot dog for us is 'Walking it through the Garden.' What we mean by that is we put cucumber, tomato, relish, onion, peppers, celery salt - all those things combined are like things you grow in your own garden. Well, Louisville wasn't used to eating cucumbers on a hot dog. I had to change the culture of eating. There were some people so scared of it I had to offer it free, basically. I said if you don't like it, I'll buy it back. I haven't bought one back yet. They know good food when they taste it."
In addition to making his own all beef chilli from scratch, Lonnie uses a host of other ingredients familiar in Chicago but alien in Louisville.
"Vienna kosher all beef hot dogs. You can't imitate them. Then there's the sport pepper. You can only get it in Chicago. It's not as hot as a jalapeno and it doesn't quite have the flavor of a banana pepper. Once you taste it, you fall in love. It's so good. Our relish is a sweet pickle relish that we dyed to go with the green, because of Chicago's Irish."
MY BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT
"My wife, who I had to convince to come down, ran the restaurant during the day while I was working for Sprint. I'd come in every evening after I got off work then we worked together until closing time. We put in a lot of prayer, a lot of diligence, you can't beat committment and dedication. During the day I was a regional manager with Sprint. I figured if I could manage 12 million a month for them I should be able to manage my own business. The problem was they kept giving me promotions and they kept giving me more money. Plus, there were benefits. After about 7 years of that, I figured I'd give myself a birthday present and I'd simply go and do my own thing. I gave them my two week's notice. I'm still here now, and I've never been happier."
You can tell Lonnie means it when he says he's never been happier. He positively gushes about Louisville.
"Louisville is great. I lured my mother here, my cousin, my man Mike from Cleveland, and I'm working on my brother. I had my mother-in-law for awhile, but she moved back because she was single.
"My aunt and uncle come down and work on projects with me for St. Matthews Little League. They like it a lot. Believe me, they love to come to Louisville. It's a fun place for families. You don't have to worry about all the drama in Chicago. There's so much crime. Don't get me wrong. Chicago is a great city - a great place to visit - and it's clean. I don't think there's a cleaner big city than Chicago. But Louisville I love. The cleanliness, the people, the town itself, the education and family, it's amazing for anybody who wants to move. I'm noticing a lot more plates that are changing. You see Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York - I'm seeing all kinds of plates now where when I first moved here, I saw mostly KY plates. You're seeing a variety because people want to come here. Louisville has so much to offer."
Louisville loves Lonnie back. He has an amazingly loyal following. I sat down to talk to him at 3 in the afternoon - normally a dead time for restaurants - but a steady stream of people came in and every single one of them, from men in suits to kids in sweats, had to say hi to Lonnie himself before ordering. However, Lonnie's Taste of Chicago has more than a local following in St. Matthews.
"Soldiers drive all the way from Ft. Knox. We have a couple who drive an hour and a half to come here. She's a nurse, he works for Toyota, and they make the trip because they can't get anything like this any closer than Chicago itself. We have an Indiana crew who load up. They're originally from Chicago. It's not like they're just across the bridge - they actually drive a good ways to get here. People come from Lexington, Paducah, they drive all this way because they can't get anything like it where they live."
Lonnie's only complaint, if you can call it that, is too much customer loyalty. "I'm always trying to get my customers to try something new. The first time they come in, they fall in love with one thing and think there's nothing that could be as good. Everybody thinks that, no mater what they order."