Chicago’s ‘Lasagna Lady’ triumphs over tragedy on the road to Whole Food’s grand opening

Photo at top: Samantha Kendall (right), who's vegetable lasagna is featured at Whole Foods celebrates with customer Angela Hill. (Provided by Samantha Kendall)

By Jasmine Minor

“I forgave the man who murdered my daughter,” says Samantha Kendall, creator of Sam’s Gourmet Lasagna, one of several local businesses that is being featured in the newly opened Whole Foods Market. It is an initiative that is trying to change the image and trajectory of Englewood, a neighborhood that tends to be more known for violence than the enterprise of entrepreneurs like Kendall.

Kendall’s daughter, 18-year-old Amanda Gallon, was shot and killed in 2006. The shooter, Antonio Quinn, fired into Amanda’s car on Valentine’s Day as she and three friends were heading out for a double date. He had mistaken the group for a rival gang. Amanda was the only one killed. Quinn is serving 60 years in prison.

Though devastated, Kendall pulled inspiration from her daughter’s death by cooking her own specialty lasagnas, first for family and friends, then turning that pastime into a full-fledged business. Healing came between layers of noodles and cheese.

“I was able to find myself through lasagna, find myself through such tragedy, heartbreak and pain and hurt,” Kendall said. “The lasagna became the balance. It became the escape.”

Now, after 10 years of building her business and brand, Kendall is one of the 35 local vendors who are featuring their wares in the gleaming new Whole Foods Market that opened last week at 63rd and Halsted Avenue.

Kendall and her lasagna were showcased at Wednesday’s festive ribbon-cutting ceremonies alongside luminaries like Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The opening of Whole Foods in a community often described as a food desert is a first step in what Emanuel describes as a two-year plan to “invest in the neighborhoods to leverage new small businesses, create new jobs and develop new retail corridors.”

The mayor praised Whole Foods for joining in the effort to transform a neighborhood that has been devastated by 50 years of disinvestment.

“If you’re going to call yourself a Chicagoland store, you better be in all parts of Chicago and Whole Foods answered that call,” Emanuel told the passionate crowd assembled in the Whole Foods parking lot for the opening. “Now we have an anchor in our work and a foundation to build off of.”

Its developers say that the $20 million Whole Foods project has created 200 jobs for the neighborhood and is the first grocery store in the nation to be built entirely by African-American contractors, according to the project’s chief developer, Leon Walker, managing partner of DL3 Realty.

“We bring good news to the community today. We bring opportunity and hope,” Walker announced at the opening. “Hope which is the seed of faith. Without hope there is no faith.”

It was faith and determination that enabled Samantha Kendall to build a business following a tragedy that shook her to the core.

The journey of healing began on the same day that her daughter was killed. While at the hospital, Kendall said she heard God speak to her, reassuring her that she would be delivered through the pain.

“I was getting into the elevator and I heard a whisper say, ‘It’s okay’ and I knew right then that this was not going to be a good outcome,” she recalled. “I went to the washroom and just started praying, and I heard the same whisper again, ‘It’s okay, get up.’”

She had already endured a lot. Right before Amanda’s death, Kendall’s husband left her and eventually asked for a divorce. In the throes of depression and grief, the single mother with three surviving children turned for comfort to the one thing that had always brought her and her family joy – lasagna, Amanda’s favorite meal.

She had dabbled in the lasagna-making business earlier, making dishes in her home kitchen and traveling around on city buses – sometimes  through knee-deep snow – to deliver her lasagna to customers. After receiving positive reviews from family and friends, she incorporated and officially launched Sam’s Gourmet Lasagna as a business, but took a pause after the death of her daughter.

A phone call from the owners of the Harold’s Chicken franchise, located on the corner of 72nd and Western Avenue, provided the incentive she needed to return to the business. They asked to sell Kendall’s lasagna at their restaurant and to this day they continue to place holiday orders.

“I was a client prior and took a pause [after Amanda’s death],” she said.  “I prayed as I mentioned earlier and got my miracle when [the owners] called that it was [time] for me to continue.”

Now known as “the lasagna lady,” Kendall’s signature dish has been featured on local television and radio shows, but joining Whole Foods takes the business to another level.

“I started this with my family in my home kitchen,” she said, “And now to have it in Whole Foods in a community where people are going to be sitting at the table, enjoying it and un-layering their day the way lasagna’s layered. This is another layer. A great layer.”

It also seems to fulfill a prediction her late daughter made as a child. “When [Amanda] was about 3 or 4, she would say to me, ‘God’s got big things for you,’” Kendall said. “Then when she got a little bit older, she would say, ‘Mom you should be so excited. God’s got big, big, big things for you.’ So the big always got bigger.”

Though Amanda is not here to see her mother’s success, Kendall said the healing from the tragedy that spurred her into this venture is complete. She said she has even forgiven the man who ultimately was convicted of her daughter’s murder.

“I think forgiveness became, for me, the centerpiece or the center point so that I wouldn’t harbor any bitterness,” Kendall said. “I thank God for blessing me and my children.”

Photo at top: Samantha Kendall (right), whose vegetable lasagna is featured at Whole Foods celebrates with customer Angela Hill. (Provided by Samantha Kendall)