Hecky Powell, suburban Chicago’s barbecue king, has gained as much renown for his finger-licking meals as he has for his ability to reach at-risk youth. He learned the main ingredient — hard work — from his father, Forrest E. Powell Sr., a domestic worker, landscaper, and lab technician. “He raised nine children and bought a house, and this was before you had first-time home buyers’ programs,” the 57-year-old restaurateur says. “He always told me ‘Whatever you are, be the best at it.’”
Powell carried this message of industry and humility with him into the workforce. But during his 10-year stint as executive director of the Community Economic Development Association, he became disillusioned. “As far as I was concerned, we weren’t helping a lot of people,” he reflects. “We were just doing hand-me-out kind of programs, which became entitlement programs.”
He found a viable alternative in entrepreneurship, opening Hecky’s Barbecue in 1983 and made youth job training the heart of the restaurant’s mission. To date, Powell has hired more than 200 young people. Many were referred to him by the Youth Job Center of Evanston, an organization serving young people who face major employment hurdles because of homelessness, criminal records, and poor education. In the interviewing process, Powell doesn’t weed out applicants based on their appearance, speech, or experience. His main criterion: a willingness to work. From chopping rib tips to operating the cash register, his young hires learn promptness and professionalism. When an employee sends the delivery driver 10 blocks in the wrong direction, snaps at a customer, or does something else that undermines the business, they’ll work that out together as well. Discussion, not threat of dismissal, is Powell’s main disciplinary tool. “We don’t just tell them, we work right with them,” says Powell. “My pitch has always been work ethic. You don’t have to be a movie star, an athlete, or an entertainer to be a success. Most success comes through hard work.”
Many have taken Powell’s lessons on to successful careers in education, nursing, maintenance, and sales. One of Powell’s first employees, Floyd Johnson, 44, never left. Today he’s the restaurant’s general manager, planting seeds of financial independence in young workers.
But Powell’s youth advocacy doesn’t stop with the restaurant. Over the years, he has served as president of a school board, given scholarships for vocational education, sponsored a youth baseball league, and funded job-training programs. “I don’t know anyone else who is able to talk with, work with, and communicate with everyone, from the most affluent homeowner to individuals who are really down and out,” says Carolyn Laughlin, an Evanston resident who has known Powell for more than 20 years. “That really is the basis of why he is so powerful and so positive in this town.”