Hecky’s carries on late founder’s legacy, wins award for best Chicago-style BBQ


Katie Chen/The Daily Northwestern

Standing at the corner of Emerson Street and Green Bay Road since 1983, Hecky’s Barbecue is a staple of the Evanston community.

Kate Walter, City Assistant Editor

Hecky’s Barbecue, an Evanston institution for nearly 40 years, won the Chicago Tribune’s Readers’ Choice Award for the best Chicago-style BBQ in April.

The award is the first the restaurant has received since its founder, Hecky Powell, died in 2020, according to Cheryl Judice, Powell’s wife and the current president and owner of Hecky’s. Judice closed the restaurant for renovations after Powell  died. She reopened it in November 2020 on what would have been Powell’s 72nd birthday.

“This is really the first recognition I have received for the restaurant since it’s been redone,” Judice said. “That’s what really struck me.” 

Powell was a civic leader in Evanston, known for his youth mentorship and leadership efforts. A lifelong Evanston resident, he first opened Hecky’s with Judice on the corner of Emerson Street and Green Bay Road in 1983. It’s been a staple of the Chicagoland area since and remains in the same storefront.

Floyd Johnson, general manager of Hecky’s, said the award is a validation of the restaurant’s continued success in the face of challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic and Powell’s death. 

“We feel obligated to honor his legacy,” said Johnson, who has worked at Hecky’s since it first opened. “That’s a motivating factor for us.”

With its motto “It’s the sauce,” Hecky’s is known for its rib tips and specialty barbecue sauce. But residents said the restaurant’s involvement in the community is what makes it a special place. 

Kemone Hendricks, a longtime Hecky’s customer and founder of educational nonprofit Evanston Present and Future, said she appreciates Powell’s founding role in the Evanston Work Ethic Program –– in addition to the restaurant’s food. 

The program, started in 2017 by Powell, supports Evanston youth interested in alternative career paths, offering workshops, mentorship and paid internships in technology and trade fields. 

“Hecky’s has been giving young children chances for decades back when the restaurant first opened,” Hendricks said. “I know they are continuing the efforts with the WE program and growing it. That’s definitely something the community is very thankful for at large.”

Judice said she bought the restaurant with her husband but wasn’t involved in day-to-day operation of the restaurant until Powell died. She said she learned a lot from longtime staff members like Johnson and Aracely Rodriguez on how to run the business. 

Johnson, who worked alongside Powell for almost 40 years, said his death was abrupt. But he said years of Powell’s guidance prepared him to carry on his legacy. 

“Hecky was a big loss, but he prepared us well,” Johnson said. “He operated as a mentor for me, he showed me everything, he let me hang out with him, he really guided me.” 

Looking ahead, Judice said she hopes to expand the sale of Hecky’s proprietary items, including its barbecue sauce and Juneteenth Strawberry Soda. The soda bottle has an image of Powell’s great-grandfather, who was born into slavery in Missouri, on the front. 

The soda’s sales profits are donated to the Forest E. Powell Foundation, Powell’s nonprofit that supports youth with vocational training. 

Since the restaurant landscape in Evanston has changed in the four decades since Hecky’s first opened, Judice said receiving the Readers’ Choice Award is a reminder that Hecky’s continues to be a fan favorite.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, folks, we’re still here,’” Judice said. “And the (rib) tips must still be really good, because we won, so there you go.”

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Twitter: @katewalter03

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