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Chef Shakes Off Record To Thrive In Bloomington-Normal Culinary Industry

“After you get your life taken away for a little while, the way you value it if given a second chance becomes a passion.”

When Allen Chambers was 17 years old, he took the wrong path and spent his teenage years in jail. After gaining a second chance at freedom, today he's made a comeback through entrepreneurship with a new business called A to Z's Catering and Parties.

"We're named A to Z's because we cook foods from apples to zucchini and everything in between," Chambers said. "Our sauces are different. We have a spicy watermelon barbecue, spicy lemonade, and our menu changes every week, so you have to choose with your mouth and not your brain." 

As a child, Chambers always watched his mother cook. Whenever he'd get into trouble and faced punishment, his mother took an unusual route to reward him for good behavior.

"I was one of those kids who got in trouble every now and then, and since my mom worked a lot, she allowed me to showcase my skills," Chambers said.

"I would cook to get off punishment. If the food was good, she'd let me off on certain occasions."

From there, his desire to pursue the culinary industry only grew. Aiming to pursue his passion after being released from jail, he reunited with a longtime friend, Zach Schobernd, who loved food just as much as he did. Upon their reunion, the two set out to launch the catering business.

Facing barriers in registering for college classes, gaining the same opportunity as those who didn't have a criminal history, and even being profiled, Chambers went through many hardships to overcome his past.

Allen Chambers
Credit Megan McGowan / WGLT
Allen Chambers is co-owner of A to Z's Catering and Parties.

"Being a person of color, you definitely have to prove yourself more. Especially in the line that I'm in," Chambers said. "People treat you differently. I'm a big black dude with dreads, a goatee, and I'm not always the most clean-shaven person, so when you look at me, sometimes you read hoodlum first, but then you get to know me and say, 'Oh, he's a teddy bear,’” he said.

After witnessing tribulations with potential investors and discouragement settle in, family members decided to help the two bring their goals to fruition.

"We had a lot of people back out on our business venture, so it made us go harder. Our parents got fed up and said, 'You know what, I'm tired of everybody backing out. I know what you guys can do,' and they invested in us."

In May 2018, together they launched the catering business. 

"We've been open 17 months and have won countless awards around Bloomington-Normal. Our average price on the menu is $11.08, and that's for a pound of any meat plus a side, so you're getting your money's worth,” Chambers said.

In July, Chambers was nominated as the fourth best chef in Bloomington-Normal by The Pantagraph's Best of Readers Choice Awards. In addition, Chambers was invited to cater for Naughty by Nature and Snoop Dogg during their visit to Normal in September 2018.

Running the business over the past year has had its ups and downs.

"When you open a business, people think it's money, money, money, right then and there, but it's not," he said. "Sometimes I have to work 18 days straight, no days off, so it gets hard, but I know there's a bigger picture."

Chambers said his ultimate goal for the business is to have a food truck alongside a social group for food lovers to network and convene. Till then, he plans to keep his reputation as one of the best chefs in town. 

"The sky's the limit for me with food. I challenge anyone to tell me that I'm wrong and that my food isn't the best, especially in Bloomington-Normal," He said. "I'm not knocking other restaurants but the proof is in the pudding."

A-Z's Catering and Parties is located between Empire and Locust street in Bloomington, and it isn't only a catering company. It's open to the public as well. Carryout hours are Thursday-Saturday from 11 a.m till 8 p.m and some Sundays from 11 a.m. till 7 p.m. For more information, visit the company website.

Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.