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TikTok Food Critic Keith Lee's Impact Turns Ailing Chicago Restaurant Into a Popular Destination

Soul Prime's story serves as a testament to the power of community support and the tremendous financial impact of an influencer's visit.
Chicago’s Soul Prime Restaurant. Pexels | By ELEVATE
Chicago’s Soul Prime Restaurant. Pexels | By ELEVATE

In the bustling landscape of Lincoln Park, Shonya “Chef Royce” Williams embarked on a culinary adventure in May 2023 by opening Soul Prime, an "elevated soul food" eatery. However, as the months passed, challenges mounted, and Royce found herself grappling with dwindling daily sales, dipping as low as $800. The turning point in this tale of struggle came with an unexpected visit from Keith Lee, a TikTok food critic with a staggering 15.5 million followers.

Keith Lee effect. Pexels | By Chan Walrus
Keith Lee effect (representational image) | Pexels/Chan Walrus

Chef Royce's culinary journey traces back to her roots on the West Side, where, as a little girl, she would avoid the kitchen at all costs. However, the culinary wisdom passed down from her grandmother, mother, and aunt persisted. Royce's love for cooking blossomed during her years as a young mother, earning her the nickname "brown bag lady" in the late '90s for delivering gourmet lunches to various establishments.

Despite her initial success, Royce faced a series of setbacks, including health issues that culminated in a stroke. Forced to put her culinary dreams on hold, she navigated through mental health challenges, eventually finding solace in hosting dinner parties and attempting to open a restaurant in the Austin neighborhood. The deal stalled, leaving Royce questioning when her fortunes would turn.

The breakthrough came in the form of winning the rental contract for the Lincoln Park property, which Royce considered an answered prayer. However, the struggle to attract customers to the business cast a shadow over her dreams.

In the midst of these challenges, Keith Lee, a TikTok sensation renowned for his food critiques, made an unannounced visit to Soul Prime on September 15. Unbeknownst to Royce, this visit would prove to be a game-changer. Lee, with his 10-point rating system, sampled various dishes, offering notable scores such as 8.7 for the golden fried chicken with hot honey sauce, and 9.2 for the short rib tacos.

Pixabay | Pexels | Representative Image
Fried chicken (representative image) | Pexels/Pixabay

But beyond just the ratings that set this visit apart, Keith Lee did something unprecedented, as he went back inside the restaurant, spoke to Chef Royce about her struggles, and matched the day's sales, amounting to $2,200. The impact was profound, extending beyond the culinary realm. Royce recalls the emotional moment when Lee took her hand and offered a heartfelt prayer, forging a connection that transcended the typical reviewer-restaurant dynamic.

Willie “Unique” Hearan IV, Royce’s nephew and employee, emphasized the significance of Keith Lee’s visit, stating, that Keith Lee came as a blessing that changed their lives forever.

Soul Prime | Pexels
Soul Prime | Pexels

The TikTok video featuring Soul Prime's culinary delights garnered an astonishing 9 million views, turning the restaurant into a sought-after destination for both locals and out-of-towners. Customers flocked to experience the dishes that had earned such high praise from Keith Lee. Beyond the influx of patrons, the restaurant witnessed an outpouring of support from the community, with people leaving donations and expressing belief in Chef Royce’s story.

Image Source: Pexels/On Shot
Inside of a restaurant (representational image) | Pexels/On Shot

Amidst the newfound success, Chef Royce remains resolute in her commitment to Soul Prime's future. Expressing gratitude for the support received, she envisions expanding the restaurant's staff and enhancing the menu’s unique twist on traditional soul food.

Image Source: Photo by Sarah  Chai | Pexels
Putting freshly cooked food in a container (representational image) | Pexels/Sarah Chai 

As Soul Prime looks to the future, Chef Royce's determination and the unexpected impact of the Keith Lee effect have opened doors for potential collaborations and partnerships.