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Dominique Leach, co-owner of barbecue restaurant Lexington Betty Smoke House and a former contestant on the Food Network’s Chopped, launched her own line of Wagyu beef steak dogs with Michigan-based Vander Farmers in Chicago this fall, and she hopes it will eventually become as beloved as Vienna Beef.
“I want it to continue to put products out that are a great representation of who I am as a chef and the importance of shopping local and eating sustainable beef instead of some of the products that we grew up eating,” she says. “I want to be as important as some of those big names to families and their shopping experiences in stores.”
The partnership kicked off at the grand opening of her restaurant in Pullman, when Vander Farmers brought her a box of samples from the Wagyu cows they’ve been raising since 2016. Leach used their beef for a burger special and for a tasting menu dinner that she prepared in Michigan. The results were so well received that Vander asked Dominique to become their brand ambassador.
“We started a really nice relationship with Dominique,” says Vander Farmers co-owner Mario vanderHulst. “We’re thinking of starting a line with her with brisket, pulled pork, and andouille sausage, and selling it in different supermarkets and the restaurant.”
Leach was already familiar with the role, having served as a brand ambassador for Mariano’s for two years. She sells brisket mac and cheese at the Lakeview Mariano's and also does cooking demonstrations for the grocery chain. Through that partnership, her steak dogs will be sold in 44 Mariano’s stores. Leach hopes to eventually expand her retailer offerings to include grills and aprons.
“I would like to continue to put out products that represent who I am as a chef and provide representation for groups like LGBTQ and Black women and young women,” she says. “I want to be an example to people that with hard work, you can achieve whatever it is you want to in life.”
That work hasn’t always been easy. Lexington Betty, which Leach co-owns with her wife Tanisha Griffin, began as a food truck. But that truck was set on fire in 2017 when it was parked at their home. The concept then began operating in Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall and One Eleven Food Hall, but both operations were severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A broken pipe shut down the North Avenue location where the chain did all the cooking for the food halls. The business struggled with staffing while Leach was in Canada filming the Food Network Canada show Fire Masters.
“Imagine being out of the country and just constantly getting all of this stressful news from your spouse and partner in the company,” Leach says. “I had no control over it because I had to give my concentration to what I was doing.”
They closed the Dr. Murphy's location and wound up taking over the One Eleven space as a full-service restaurant during the spring.
“We're the only small business in this strip mall between the two strip malls,” Leach says. “It's such a competitive and difficult industry to be in and I'm so happy that the community has been receptive to it.”
Lexington Betty had attracted a loyal following at Dr. Murphy’s, but Leach, who is 37, said she had to close the outpost to protect the longevity of her business.
“Sometimes my decisions are based on how a 45-year-old Dominique is going to look back at this decision and feel like it was a good one,” she says. “I want to be around for the long haul. It's important to me to make decisions based on the evolution of the business. Is this decision today going to make sense for where we want to be in five years?”
While customers can already buy Leach's Wagyu dogs from a freezer at her Pullman restaurant, she is adding a larger retail space in January that will stock barbecue sauces and seasonings along with Lexington Betty hats, T-shirts, and hoodies. Leach appeared on Good Morning America in May alongside Soul & Smoke executive chef D’Andre Carter, and since then she said she’s been seeing long lines at her restaurant and visitors from out of town who want to talk to her and take pictures.
“This lady from New York said, ‘What's your inspiration?’” Leach says. “I said, ‘It started off as survival.’ And she said, ‘All of this from just wanting to survive?’ Those reactions touch me and make me understand how important it is to showcase what the struggle looks like, but what the journey can become through consistency and believing in yourself.”
Leach hosted a cooking demo for students at the University of Chicago as part of LGBT History Month in October. She also developed a menu that was served to 700 students in one of their dining halls for the day. It went over so well that the University of Chicago is putting together a video biography of Leach to pitch to sixteen other universities looking at potentially adding barbecue concepts to their campuses.
“I would certainly like to take as many as I possibly can up on the offer, but even to be in Hyde Park at University of Chicago in one of their dining halls would be so important to me,” she says. “To be affiliated with such a wonderful university would just really speak volumes.”
The Pullman location is now busier than all of her previous locations combined, and has become a draw for the predominantly Black South Side neighborhood.
“It is so hard to be a Black woman in this country still today,” Leach says. “I've just decided that I'm going to fight so that I can leave a stamp on this earth and someone knows my name after I'm done with all of this hard work. I believe that the community has spoken and they are so receptive to what I've put out as a Black female chef.”