To the right of the counter at Brother Tim's Vegetarian Fast Food, a photo of a lean African-American man, at work in a kitchen, grinning, leaps out from the faded page of a decades-old news clipping. The story opens, "Tim Thompson is a one man crusade for vegetarianism."
Since the article was published, Brother Tim's Vegetarian has a new location, new menu items, new decor and a new owner. What doesn't require revision is that Brother Tim's is still a healthy eating staple in a section of the city with too few healthy options. And there's still a grinning Thompson in charge and hoping to change that reality.
More than 30 years later, we offer an epilogue to the story of Brother Tim and his namesake Calumet Heights restaurant.
Timothy Thompson started as a home baker piling lettuce, tomato, carrot, cucumber, avocado, cheese and cayenne seasoning atop his molasses- and honey-infused wheat bread. He sold bread loaves and sandwiches to stores in veggie-friendly North Side and suburban neighborhoods before he opened his first storefront at 79th Street and Paulina Avenue in 1977. He eventually moved to 74th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, and the menu expanded to include veggie burgers, soups and its shining star, vegetarian tacos.
He gained a following for his diverse menu of meatless but still recognizable dishes, this in an era before Boca burgers filled home freezers and servers offered gluten-free menus along with a wine list. But longtime customers say Thompson himself — constantly smiling, gregarious and eager to gab — was just as much of a reason they stopped in as the food itself in those early days.
"I followed that man around Chicago for 25 or 30 years. He'd always come up to you and be like, 'Heeey, brother man!' He was just warm," Yoel Ahmechshadye said.
"My dad could talk to anybody," said Kim Thompson, his oldest daughter. "There's customers who come in now who didn't know my dad passed (in 2010) and when they find out they break out crying."
The 74th Street shop eventually shut, but Tim would reopen again in 1998, this time with Kim, then 30 and a hairstylist by trade, at her father's side. They moved to a new location in 2006 before finally settling at the current 87th Street location in 2010.
Some might see Brother Tim's lack of permanence as a red flag, a sign the food probably just wasn't that good. Customers, however, point to Thompson's nomadic following as testament to the food's quality and part of the burden that came with his unofficial title as an ambassador for healthier eating on the South Side.
"In our community, we struggle more than the usual vegetarian business because it's not the normal on this side of town. It's different. And we're here because we're different," Kim Thompson said.
Brother Tim's menu of hot dogs, chili, pizza, tamales and cobblers has purposefully resembled a hot dog stand or chicken shack, inviting people familiar with those foods to try the vegetarian version and, hopefully, get hooked on the healthier.
It's no easy task, however. Customers almost unanimously express frustration at the deep permeance of fast-food culture in South Side neighborhoods. The restaurant itself is only one storefront down from a rib and chicken joint. Even inside Tim's, a commercial for Burger King's rib sandwich blares over the restaurant's television, eliciting a scoff from first-time customer Raina Perry.
"There's more to South Side food than just Harold's (Chicken). We don't want to all eat McDonald's and Burger King," she said.
"Let's be real, it's the South Side. We're Americans. Sometimes we just want fast food. Fries and fish nuggets," said Lauren Materre, a vegan customer for over 20 years who calls Tim's "a godsend" for committing to healthy comfort food.
Thompson has partnered with Materre's not-for-profit Natural Path Nutrition Inc. as well as starting her own organization called To Your Health With Love. Thompson is using To Your Health With Love, the official motto of Brother Tim's, to continue work she started at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School teaching students how to make vegetarian dishes. She hopes providing recipes and hands-on familiarity with veggie options to South Side kids, many of whom she says are home alone after school, will equip them to make healthier choices when they reach for a snack or menu.
Renamed Yahshua Ben Israel as part of his Hebrew Israelite faith, Tim Thompson died in 2010 of pneumonia at age 68. Kim and her sisters Karen and Imani still bake their father's bread recipe and still make their own "meat," and people still line up for "Taco Tuesdays." But not everything is just as Tim left it.
The latest version of Brother Tim's is a bit more refined, old-timers say. The walls are painted a rich hue of orange and black and adorned with artwork, a stark contrast to Tim's restaurants with their Formica counters and cramped dining space. Musicians play the dining room, and Kim Thompson has expanded the menu to keep up with vegetarian tastes. What's a modern-day vegetarian restaurant without a kale salad?
"Kim helped resurrect the business and took it to another level. She's got a little more of the woman's touch. She's made it a more comfortable place to be," Ahmechshadye said.
Tim Thompson, once a "one man crusade" for South Side vegetarianism, wrote the first draft of the Brother Tim's Vegetarian story. It hangs on the restaurant's wall.
It seems Kim Thompson has already started to write the next one.
Brother Tim's Vegetarian Fast Food
1711 E. 87th St.; 773-375-4722
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Known for: Vegetarian tacos, fresh bread, honey lemonade and shakes
Note: Tacos are $1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays
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