After Hecky Powell died last May, his family continues the legacy of Hecky’s Barbecue


Daily file photo by Jeffrey Wang

Hecky’s Barbecue. The restaurant underwent renovations and other changes as Hecky Powell’s family works to continue its legacy.

Max Lubbers, Digital Managing Editor

Nearly four decades after its opening, Hecky’s Barbecue is continuing the legacy of its namesake, Hecky Powell, who died last May of complications from COVID-19.

Hecky Powell’s wife Cheryl Judice, who started the restaurant with him in 1983, said his impact on the community was enormous — she has a bag full of about 400 condolence cards that were sent to her after his passing.

“Fully half of them contain little notes, that’ll say something like, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss. I know Hecky from blank; this is what Hecky did for me,’” she said. “And it’s just overwhelming.”

With the massive mark Hecky Powell left on Evanston, his family and longtime staff members are dedicating themselves to keeping his memory alive and building on the restaurant’s success.

Part of that effort came through renovating Hecky’s and replacing equipment last fall. Hecky’s shut down in late September to complete the changes. The restaurant reopened on Nov. 6, what would’ve been Hecky Powell’s 72nd birthday, amid rare sunny weather.

“The idea of us having a 70 degree day in November on Hecky’s birthday, that Friday we opened, is unprecedented. I said, ‘Okay, Hecky is up here,” Judice said. “‘He’s over on the other side, making sure that things go well.’”

Judice and her team also added new food items to the menu, including a chili to be served in the winter months. Judice said she developed the recipe years ago using Hecky’s famous sauce. Just a few weeks ago, they also added beef ribs, she said.

Helping with the changes in cooking is Hecky’s sister Patsy Powell. She worked at the restaurant in the 1980s and returned to become operations manager after her brother’s death, she said.

“I’m just extremely proud that I can push on and continue with his family and our family, the legacy,” she said. “He left an empire, and I just didn’t realize that as much until being back here in Evanston. People come in with these stories, like, ‘I’ve been coming here for 30 years, I’ve been coming in for 25 years.’”

Powell said that she wants to continue his legacy. She uses her background as a military cook to make sure the food’s quality comes out consistent every time, she said.

Still, she said, she wants to uphold the atmosphere her brother encouraged: hard work and having fun.

“We have a really, really tight knit strong team, and we haven’t skipped a beat,” Powell said. “People wonder, like, ‘Well he’s passed, is the restaurant going under?’ The restaurant is still thriving, we’re doing good.”

Many of Hecky’s Barbecue employees have been there for years. Aracely Rodriguez, one of the general managers for Hecky’s, has worked there for over a decade.

She said when she first got the job, she was a very shy person, but Hecky Powell pushed her to talk with the customers. Now, that’s Rodriguez’s favorite part of the job.

“That’s what he mainly wanted: for us to interact with customers and make them feel happy when they leave out the door,” she said. “And that’s what I got from him, so I feel great doing it.”

Judice said it’s important for her to support Hecky’s employees and to “take care of the people that take care of you.”

She also wants to make sure Hecky’s reach continues to go beyond the food, she said. In 2016, they established the Evanston Work Ethic program, which supports youth in pursuing careers outside of a four-year college. The program accepted 14 Evanston Township High School juniors for the 2022 cohort, according to the organization’s website.

All of these efforts — improvements to the restaurant, food, and outreach — come down to something simple: keeping a good thing going.

“I’m really excited to continue it on,” Judice said. “Hecky’s is really a legendary institution in Evanston, and I want to continue to live up to that reputation.”

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Twitter: @maxlubbers

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