Chicago native Sydney Blakely drove up to her Bridgeport restaurant Wednesday morning ready to open for the day, but instead called police after finding the outside of her business had been vandalized with graffiti and hate speech.
“They pretty much graffitied literally everywhere you could think of, BLDM, which means Black Lives Don’t Matter,” she said. “It was on the side of the building. It was on my door in the back, probably about four times in the back of the building. It was all over the side of the building. They put BLDM on the windows, all over my mural, all over the front. You couldn’t look at the building and not see it.”
Blakely is the “owner, cooker, worker and janitor” of Cook It Mama Cafe, 545 W. 31st St., which she opened in September after she left her job with the secretary of state’s office to follow her passion. She started making and selling salads in high school and went on to sell soul food, pasta and more. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she would cater private dinners and events for people, which drove her to open Cook It Mama Cafe.
“I was very excited,” she said. “I am still excited. Let me not let the situation hinder my happiness and joy.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Chicago police said the investigation is ongoing and no one was in custody.
Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th, also issued a statement after Blakely reached out to her.
“My heart breaks for Sydney — a young, hardworking entrepreneur who deserves better,” Lee said in the statement. “Acts of hate will not be tolerated in the 11th Ward, and we are working with police to ensure all parties responsible for this act are held accountable.”
Blakely said she “couldn’t believe it” at first when she saw all the hateful damage. Once the police arrived, she said they told her if and when they find the person or people responsible, they would be charged with a hate crime rather than a misdemeanor of vandalism.
Blakely started a GoFundMe to help recreate her restaurant’s facade and also invest in a security system. She said she wants to install cameras because she “doesn’t feel safe in there” by herself anymore.
“It’s really unbelievable,” she said. “To be living in 2023 and that could happen. I don’t know if they’ll try to come back. I don’t know if they’re going to be upset because I pulled through. I just want to be safe.”
As a lifelong Chicago resident, Blakely said she has never experienced this level of “top of the line hatred.” She said she opened her restaurant in Bridgeport knowing it has a “dark past” and “has not always been the safest place” for minorities, but she thought times had changed.
“I figured, hey, we’re in a new world,” she said. “We’re in 2023, well, really 2020 at that time. I had no idea that this would happen. Maybe I knew I might not get support from the whole neighborhood. That’s fine. But never did I think that I would be subject to a hate crime.”
Cook It Mama Cafe is closed for the week, and Blakely said she plans to reopen sometime next week after the place is cleaned up and presentable. The restaurant serves up different sandwiches, tacos, soups, a special homemade pineapple lemonade and more.
Cook It LMama Cafe has a five-star rating in online reviews and no negative comments, Blakely said, something she is proud of. She said her goal for the restaurant is to provide a “good, pleasant vibe” to anyone who walks in, whether they’re looking for a quick bite on the go or want to stay for a while.
She said it’s hard to close because the restaurant it is her livelihood, but “it breaks my spirits to see it like that,” and she doesn’t want others to see her business like that either.
She said she will post updates to the restaurant’s Instagram account, @cookitmamacafe. Once reopened, the restaurant will operate at its normal hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.