"I found myself without a job for the first time ever," says Eddie Nero of Big Ed’s BBQ, "but I just kept cooking."
Nero spent time grilling outdoors, where his smokey meats and sauces would entice the neighborhood. About that time, Jason McKie, formerly of the Chicago Bears, invited Nero to cater a charity event. Then, Bears kick returner Devin Hester, who attended that event, reached out with compliments, requesting Nero’s dishes for his own upcoming event.
With celebrity gigs under his belt, catering for players and their guests, Nero had built the confidence for his next career move. He told himself, "Let’s just do this."
Soon, Nero found the spot that would become Big Ed’s BBQ, and he even bought the smoker — but his wife, Kim, was none the wiser about this new direction. "I actually didn’t tell my wife that I’d been researching and planning for this, because I didn’t want her to talk me out of it. I sprung it on her," he says, chuckling. For Kim to believe that a successful venture in BBQ was possible, and even likely, it would be more a matter of show than tell.
Having grown up on the south side of Chicago, what Nero knew and loved was the Chicago-style BBQ that Big Ed’s is well known for today. Now, twelve years later, everyone is convinced – in Waukegan, Illinois, and beyond.
Offering reasons for the shop’s popularity, Nero says, "BBQ is a universal food. It transcends race and religion." And the military bases nearby certainly help bring in regular customers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Ed’s would regularly see customers from across the U.S.
Big Ed’s, once just a far-fetched idea, was born from the loss of Nero’s job in 2007, a life interruption to his sense of comfort and security. He admits, "I probably never would’ve done it. I was happy as a husband, father, a cook at home." These days, he works full time and then some, arriving to the restaurant by 3:30am. "The business kind of dictates my hours," he says. "I go in early. I stay late."
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Growing up, Nero’s father did most of the cooking, and now, his own son works right alongside him – a family tree, a full circle of influence.
The Neros and partners Rhonda Gage and Katie Sullivan are all actively involved in the business, co-owners and operators since 2008. Nero recalls times past when Gage would contribute wages earned from her other job to make payroll or buy supplies for Big Ed’s.
"I wouldn’t tell people to do it the way I did," he warns. "We were broke! But if it’s something you want to do, take that leap of faith. Now I’m in the best place that I’ve ever been in my life, working for myself in a successful business." Nero says if he’d started Big Ed’s 20 years ago instead of dedicating himself to working for others in positions that would eventually go away, he’d be retired right now.
His advice to those entering the restaurant business? "Give it 100%, take nothing for granted, work hard at it. It’s yours. Be there when you should. Customers will remember having driven 45 minutes to eat your food only to find you’re closed," he says. And they’ll share that experience with others. "When you’re the owner, you’re responsible. Be all in. Period."
Over the years, when employees found themselves in need, Nero has responded in ways virtually unheard of – funding and catering a quinceañera, and even purchasing vehicles for employees who would repay their debts over time.
Simultaneously holding power while being relatable is a tenet of leadership that Nero learned and practiced through his many years of corporate work, and now in business for himself. It’s a principle that’s created an amazing experience for both his customers and staff.
When meat processing plants saw downturns in production, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, costs of meat shot up exorbitantly, if it was available at all. But Nero didn’t pass that increase on to customers. Fortunately, the business received financial relief that has helped to bridge cash flow during the pandemic.
And, over the years, when employees found themselves in need, Nero has responded in ways virtually unheard of – funding and catering a quinceañera, and even purchasing vehicles for employees who would repay their debts over time.
Nero says, "I’m nothing without those who work with and for me, and we have such a close connection with our customers, that it’s important my staff are happy."
I’m nothing without those who work with and for me, and we have such a close connection with our customers, that it’s important my staff are happy.
Considering early business decisions, Nero says he was simplistic and deliberate about his logo, which is a simple silhouette. "First, to avoid judgement," he explains, specifically, discrimination on the basis of race – a reality that falls heavier and more frequently on Black people than on those of other races. Much like code switching, this is a kind of identity-masking labor and dissociative presentation often tied to being Black in a service-oriented field.
"Second," he says, "I wanted brand recognition," pointing to the many chain restaurants known only by their logos.
As we reel in the throes of yet another highly contentious election season, Nero suggests new business owners assume an apolitical position in their shops. He says, "We don’t do political affiliations at Big Ed’s BBQ. We don’t endorse or allow any candidates to leave their materials. We tried that and learned quickly that this divides customers down the party line."
While the pandemic has brought such devastation and uncertainty to small and large businesses alike, Nero believes, because of the tremendous support he receives from the community, Big Ed’s will stick around.
"We feel like our product, our reputation, and our business is enough to sustain us," he says. "In fact, we’re planning to expand our kitchen area to increase our carry out and delivery service."
No matter what, Nero says Big Ed’s BBQ will figure a way forward, and they’ll continue to adjust for the duration.
Right now, Nero is working through the logistics of Big Ed’s no-cost annual Thanksgiving meal, a collaborative effort with meat suppliers made possible year by year through financial donations from the community. Big Ed’s is committed to this tradition, and to giving back to the community that has given so much of itself.