Entrepreneurs and philanthropists Gus W. Rickette Sr. and Mary F. Rickette had humble beginnings in Leland, MS. Leland was and still is a small town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta where farming is the basis of the local economy. Cotton was king and today it remains a leading commodity crop along with corn, soybeans and rice. At age 16 he married the love of his life Mary Robertson. Gus had plans other than farming for himself and his new bride so, at 17, he boarded a train alone, and headed to Chicago with the intention of securing a good job with the railroad.
Coming from the small Leland community to a northern metropolis was daunting. When Gus arrived in Chicago, the size of the city overwhelmed him. Lost, he wandered around with hopes of finding the friends that were to meet him at the train station. He was homeless, and later that night, he found himself “on the wrong side of the tracks,” which led to him spending his first night in the Windy City locked in a jail cell for vagrancy. It was the height of the Jim Crow Era in America, and a Black man could be jailed for something as innocuous as standing on the street corner too long.
Gus soon found work doing odd jobs. At noon, he would wash dishes at a restaurant on State Street in exchange for a meal. Later, he would head to a Chinese restaurant, where he would earn twenty-five to fifty cents washing dishes.
Until he could save enough money to send for his family, he slept on Skid Row, now the South Loop, or at the Woods Theater at the corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets.
After sending for Mary and the kids, the family settled on the city’s West Side. Gus spent the next 15 years working as a janitor, a brick layer and hanging nets in a laundry. Mary worked in the factories and held clerical jobs.
In March 1962, Gus, Mary and a friend took a leap of faith and opened their first business, G&G Chicken Shack at 135 S. Pulaski. They opened with a home refrigerator, one fryer, a box of chicken and four employees. Gus and Mary continued to work their full-time jobs while starting their business. A half chicken sold for a $1.00; knowing they could provide food at a reasonable price and stave off hunger in the population, was a good feeling!
G&G was the first chicken shack on the West Side. The concept of a fast-food restaurant was new to the area. Neither Gus nor Mary had experience in food preparation or management, but he found himself shaking chicken in brown paper bags and managing a staff of four. People would stand in line for an hour to place their orders. They often ran out of chicken and would have to go out for another box. Gus refers to this period as trial and error. After a year operating G&G, Gus and Mary severed ties with their business partner.
A man of ideas, Gus believed that there’s never an idea that could not be improved. With this mindset, in 1964, the Rickettes opened Royal Chicken at 3350 W. Madison. Royal Chicken was a huge success. To meet the demand for their product, Gus had seven special cars that delivered to customers at Chicago’s main post office facility downtown.
During the 1968 riots, Royal Chicken burned down like so many other structures and businesses in the city. The Civil Rights Movement was strong, unrest was everywhere and disenfranchised Black and poor people were marching and demanding their human rights and equality in our society. For the Rickettes, the destruction was humbling and brought with it many learned lessons. It only stoked the flames of determination, revealing more clearly the importance of having our own businesses in the neighborhoods. With that kind of drive, it was less than a year later that the Rickettes had Royal Chicken back in operation at 4350 W. Madison.
Many will be surprised to learn that there is no Uncle Remus in the Rickettes’ family tree. While shopping for a new sign in Indiana, Gus and Mary were shown a sign with the name Uncle Remus. The owner of the shop explained that the original buyers had changed their mind. He offered to sell them the sign at a discount if they would take it off his hands. Once the sign was fixed up, Gus officially named the family business Uncle Remus Chicken Restaurant.
The first Uncle Remus opened in February 1969 followed by a second restaurant opening in August 1969. For several years, Gus operated as many as eight businesses at one time including Uncle Remus, BBQ Kingdom, Rickettes Country Kitchen and Royal Chicken.
By this time, Gus had moved from brown paper bags to a modern operating system and developed their trademark mild sauce that sets Uncle Remus apart from its peers. The phrase ‘the secret is in the sauce,’ will remain a family secret.
Gus and Mary retired from the day-to-day operations in 1991. They appointed their youngest child, Charmaine Rickette, to manage their flagship restaurant on West Madison. She now serves as the company’s president and CEO.
In 2004, the Rickettes opened a suburban Uncle Remus in Broadview, IL. The company officially added Saucy Fried Chicken to the name in 2005. Uncle Remus made history in September 2006 as the first non-national chain restaurant to operate inside the first inner-city location of the world’s largest retailer—Wal-Mart. The Bolingbrook, IL location was opened in 2020, to much success, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic!
Uncle Remus is a 50-year-old historical institution representing Chicago’s West Side. It is a true family business, all of the Rickette’s 12 children worked in the family businesses at some point.
For Gus and Mary, the idea of going into business was to create jobs in the neighborhood and provide for their family. These guiding principles formed a moral foundation that served them well in the years ahead.
Even though Gus and Mary had little, giving back was never hard for them. Always remembering how hungry they were, feeding people for free was something they did regularly through their restaurants, you might call it their Food Mission. First it was their “Love Meals” initiative to feed the homeless on Valentine’s Day, to being the first benefactors of Matthew House Shelter, to offering mentoring, giving financial support or gifting other business owners. They were philanthropic before even understanding what it meant. They were doing what they felt was right. In the process, they created a family, a business, a legacy of giving.
A respected and proud veteran, Gus served in United States Army. He also is a founding board member for the West Side Business Association. He enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren. Gus is a loyal resident of Chicago’s West Side and is busy doing, what else, planning his next business venture.
Matriarch Mary F. Rickette passed away in 2001. Her spirit and legacy of giving, cultivating and kindness still resonates with the thousands of lives she has touched.