Sweet Maple Café celebrates 20 years of providing home-made deliciousness
October 4, 2019

Photo by Christopher Valentino
Laurene Hynson runs Sweet Maple Café, which is celebrating 20 years of providing delicious home-made style breakfasts and lunches. Hynson’s homemade biscuits are famous.

By William S. Bike

Sweet Maple Café during October celebrates 20 years of providing delicious down-home breakfasts and lunches not only to people who live and work around the Little Italy/University of Illinois at Chicago community, but from throughout the city and to international figures including Barack Obama.

Located at 1339 W. Taylor St., the restaurant features a 1940s-era ambiance, with all selections made from scratch with fresh ingredients. The décor includes old family photos and a hardwood floor.

Owner Laurene Hynson had not expected to be a restaurateur earlier in her life, but her decision to change careers has meant two decades of great food.

“I had a career in sales and marketing,” Hynson said. After she and her husband, Glenn Beard, MD, had their daughter, Jackson, in 1995, Hynson decided to leave her job a year later. After taking care of son Grant Beard and daughter Jackson as a stay-at-home mom for two years, Hynson thought about investing in real estate.

She looked at some properties in the area with Carmen Gallucci of C. Gallucci Realty, and he told Hynson about a closed Taylor Street restaurant formerly known as Annette’s Kitchen. That got Hynson thinking.

“I always did want my own business,” Hynson said. “I’d been cooking since I was nine years old, and I enjoyed entertaining, and a restaurant business would combine both.”

She put $500 down to hold the space and took out a lease from Annette Mategrano, owner of the building and of Scafuri Bakery next door. Hynson decided to make Sweet Maple a breakfast and lunch restaurant because “I’m a morning person and in 1999 my daughter was four and my son was seven, so I could work while they were in school and then be home when they were,” she said.

The menu of home-cooked favorites made from scratch came about because “that’s what I really enjoyed eating and serving to family and friends,” Hynson said, noting she also asked advice of an older relative concerning family recipes. She taught her cooks to prepare her fare as she did at home.

“Our selection has stayed pretty much the same, although we have deleted and added a few items,” Hynson explained. “The staff makes great suggestions about menu choices.”

All time favorite

The all time favorite item at the restaurant is the sweet milk biscuits, she said, noting “they made Sweet Maple famous.” The second most popular item is the cinnamon roll pancakes, which are not always on the menu; Sweet Maple offers them from time to time as a special treat, Hynson said, noting that “people call about them all the time.”

Hynson’s biggest surprise in running Sweet Maple was “how much fun it is, how much I enjoy it, and how much the staff enjoys the restaurant,” she said. “Our average length of service is 14 years. We not only operate like a family, but I’ve had family members work here. That family feeling gives Sweet Maple a vibe that is special.”

Sweet Maple over the years has provided employment opportunities to students from local universities such as “the University of Illinois at Chicago, Roosevelt, and Columbia,” Hynson said. “Even when they get full time jobs after graduation they sometimes come back here to work part-time or weekends because of the family vibe. We’ve had staff go on to medical school and become teachers and lawyers.”

Hynson noted how customers’ tastes in food have changed over the years. “Early on people wanted low carbs and high protein, so they ordered a lot of meat like sausages and pork chops,” she explained. “Now people eat less meat and they’d like gluten-free food, but I don’t do a lot of that. Gluten-free pancakes just aren’t that good.”

Another change Hynson noted is “the advent of technology—people use smart phones a lot,” she said. The restaurant has kept up and has a website and a Facebook page.

In thinking about what she might have done differently, Hynson said, “I would have opened sooner—I started in midlife. But I typically don’t think about what I would have done differently because I believe every decision I have made—good or bad—has gotten me where I am today.”

Mayor Emanuel’s last day

Where Hynson is today is at one of Taylor Street’s most popular restaurants. “Everybody comes to Sweet Maple Café,” she said. “Athletes, Academy Award winning actors, local news anchors, and politicians—Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and JB Pritzker, for example. Rahm Emanuel spent his last morning as Mayor at Sweet Maple Café. But nobody is more important than anyone else here. Serving everyone is a privilege.”

Obama held an event at Sweet Maple when he ran for the U.S. Senate, before the advent of smartphones. “So I didn’t take any pictures, and my children have never forgiven me,” Hynson said.

She recalled another oversight that resulted in some laughs. “One of our staff made lemonade in the pickle container,” Hynson said. “Even though it was clean, the pickle flavor never comes out. Believe me, people do not want pickle-flavored lemonade.”

Hynson noted that, at age 63, she will probably not run the restaurant forever. “Annette Mategrano ran her business until she was 90, and I will not be doing that,” Hynson said. “I think I have one more act in my life, and I’d like to do more service in my community but I haven’t yet figured out what that will be. But I have no date in mind and plan on doing Sweet Maple for the next few years, and I want the restaurant to go on whether I’m here or not.”

The years have gone by quickly. Son Grant graduated from Stanford University and works as a management consultant, and daughter Jackson is a law student at Harvard University. Throughout that time, the restaurant has continued to serve big breakfasts, country scrambles, “not so plain” buttermilk pancakes with pure Vermont maple syrup, French toast, and classic café and grilled cheese sandwiches.

“The food is absolutely fabulous,” said Schnell Price-Lambert, president and CEO of Jos Learning Academy and a regular Sweet Maple customer since the restaurant’s first week. “It’s like eating my mom’s or my grandmother’s cooking.

“My family and I have marked so many major events at Sweet Maple,” Price-Lambert recalled. “I got engaged there, we’ve had landmark events in my children’s lives there. When family come in, I take them to Sweet Maple. Laurene and the staff are like my family.”

“I truly appreciate the support that my family and employees and I have received from our customers,” Hynson said. “I’m overwhelmed. When I started out, I didn’t always know what I was doing, but Sweet Maple Café has been one of the great joys of my life.”

Sweet Maple Café is open every day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., with breakfast always available. The restaurant serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and offers takeout and catering. The phone number is (312) 243-8909, and the website is www.sweetmaplecafe.com.