Sophie Madej was always let down when one of her regular Busy Bee customers left the Wicker Park neighborhood. She uplifted spirits while serving pierogis, sour cream spinach soup and potato pancakes between 1956 and 1998 at one of Chicago’s most famous diners.
Mrs. Madej died on Aug. 21 in her northwest side home. She was 86 years old.
The Busy Bee, 1546 N. Damen, was defined by a shoebox shaped diner counter and bright yellow walls you would find in your Grandmother’s kitchen.
Many customers sat on old stools, faced each other and sometimes yelled at each other across a service area at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Urban intimacy is why the Busy Bee was a honey comb for everyone.
Chicago Mayor Harold Washington loved the Busy Bee’s oxtail stew, activist Abbie Hoffman recommended the budget conscious menu for anti-war protestors and the authentic Chicago vibe made the Busy Bee a photo-op for Hillary Clinton, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Dan Rostenkowski. At one time the Busy Bee sponsored a Damen Avenue bowling team and everyone along the counter read newspapers. That was a long time ago in heart and soul.
Mrs. Madej’s early years were directed by cruel winds, which is why she understood the importance of roots.
A native of Poland, Mrs. Madej was moved to Germany in 1943 under the Nazis forced labor laws. She met her husband Henry in 1947 (they divorced in 1985), where they remained until 1951 when Catholic Charities gave the couple $100 to sponsor their trip to America. The young couple came to America with two suitcases and two children. Henry worked on a cattle farm in Virginia for a year before they migrated to Chicago to settle in a larger Polish community. In 1955 Mrs. Madej found work at the Rose Packing House, originally at the Back of the Yards and later in Stickney.
“I worked on the slicing machine,” Mrs. Madej said in several conversations I had with her over the years. “We’d pack Canadian bacon and ham for the supermarkets. There were about 30 women in one room. They paid good, but I couldn’t take the cold anymore.” Mrs. Madej’s doctor told her to quit her job.
At the time Mrs. Madej was living at 18th and Damen in Pilsen. A friend told her that the Busy Bee was for sale. The Busy Bee had already been renamed from the Oak Room, which opened in 1913.
Mrs. Madej did not know how the Busy Bee got its name. She did not know anything about the restaurant business. She sold her house in Pilsen. With that money she bought the entire Busy Bee building in the early 1970s, a deal that included 16 upstairs apartments.
While all the action was at the front counter, the Busy Bee also included a more sedate dining room north of the diner area. A favorite dining room tonic was the “Busy Bee Stinger” (brandy, white creme de menthe and a dash of krupnik, a Polish honey liqueur.). The bees began buzzing after a few of these drinks.
In the early years her work day began at 4 a..m. and ran until 10 p.m. Mrs. Madej rode the Damen Avenue bus north from her home in Pilsen to Wicker Park. After the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, the Wicker Park area took a turn for the worse and her older children started picking Mrs. Madej up at night. During the riots someone threw a brick through the front window of the Busy Bee.
All her children: Elizabeth, Hank, Chester and Robert worked at the Busy Bee. “She worked very hard to make all her customers feel like family,” Chester wrote in a Saturday e-mail. “It was her heart that made it work. We all worked there, the grand kids, because it was all about Sophie. She did a lot for the Wicker Park neighborhood. That took a lot of guts, courage and personal pride to make it happen.”
Few people said, “Let’s go to the Busy Bee.”
More people said, “Let’s go to Sophie’s.”
I moved to Wicker Park in 1981, which is Jurassic Park in hipster years. I left in 1986 for Ukranian Village, and although I lived close to the Busy Bee, Mrs. Madej still would scold me for leaving the neighborhood. I remained a regular devotee of the handmade meat, cheese and potato pierogis which Mrs. Madej said was her mother’s recipe. During the Christmas season the Busy Bee would sell 1,000 pierogi a week. The dough was the power point. Mrs. Madej kneaded the dough, striking the exact balance of flour, eggs and water. This ensured that the dough would enclose the filling and not break open while being boiled.
In June, 1998 Mrs. Madej retired at age 70 and closed the Busy Bee .
Sophie was the last of a breed of old school female service industry entrepreneurs in Chicago that included Margie of Margie’s Candies, Phyllis of Phyllis’s Musical Inn and Marie of Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge. Shakespeare District cop William Jaconetti composed the prose for a historic plaque that community members put outside the restaurant, now the Blue Line Tap and Grill.
“Sophie is the pioneer of this neighborhood,” Jaconetti told me over lunch with Mrs. Madej. “They talk about community policing? It starts at a place like this. At tough times she was always here for the police. For every demonstration, for the Rolling Stones concert (at the Double Door across the street), she stayed open so the police would have somewhere to go. This didn’t happen because it was a business. She did something special. She opened the doors to everyone.”
Mrs. Madej had a triple bypass operation six months after selling the Busy Bee. She spent the rest of her life doting on her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
In 2003 I invited her back to her old place which was rebuilt as the Blue Line Tap. It was her first time in the building since she retired. She cried. “I spent my whole life here,” she said while sitting next to a jukebox stocked with Fatboy Slim and not Lil’ Wally.
I showed Mrs. Madej a copy of the book “The New Polish Cuisine,” written by former Chicago chef Michael J. Baruch. She was intrigued, especially by the angle that many Poles were vegetarians because of the abundance of religious holidays that required fasting.
In a subsequent interview Baruch called the Busy Bee “a very historical restaurant.” He elaborated, “The greatest lesson I learned from the Busy Bee was Polish peasant hospitality serving gourmet fare. Great chefs snuck in there. I was a sous chef at Le Francais, Jovan and Cafe Provencal and I’ve seen a lot of places close. It wasn’t until the Busy Bee closed that I saw people cry.”
The magic was simple at the Busy Bee.
“I often wondered what I got into,” she told me in 1990 over supper at the Bee. “I said, ‘Sophie, what did you do now?’ When I came in at six (a.m.) I used to do the register. Or at night I’d cook. When you’re here this much, people get to know you. Then they see you’re not a snob, but a plain working woman trying to make it….why that’s all it is.”
Besides her children, Mrs. Madej is survived by seven grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Funeral mass is 10 a.m. Aug. 25 at St. Monica Church, 5115 N. Mont Clare. She will be buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice.