NEWARK, NJ — Back in March, Walter “Willie” Green, stricken with a cough and fever, bounced around the Newark area from hospital to hospital, being told three times by doctors that he didn’t have symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
It wasn’t until Green went to a free testing site that health care workers noticed his blood oxygen levels were low and carted him off to the emergency room. His South Ward restaurant, already stymied like most businesses under quarantine restrictions, closed for more than a month while he recovered.
But like Green, Uncle Willie’s Wings is on the rebound — stay-at-home munchies have been good for business and Green’s spirits. Now, taking stock of the increased need for altruism on his section of Frelinghuysen Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood, the South Ward’s favorite uncle invited everyone who’s hungry to the block for a free meal.
“There’s the saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but the people in that village also have to take care of each other,” Green said. “I feel like being an African American business owner in an African American community gives me a very strong responsibility to support the people in this neighborhood. Especially in a time like this, when there aren’t a lot of positive things going on.”
An IT professional by day and a United States Army veteran, the Chicago native has lived in Newark’s South Ward for three years and established Uncle Willie’s Wings a little under a year ago. He derived the name from the moniker a past boss and his military cohorts gave him because they thought he seemed more like a Willie than a Walter.
He picked “Uncle,” he said, because it provided that down-home, comfortable feeling he hopes his patrons get when they walk in and eat his food.
Short on sleep and long on passion, he delights in inventing hip-hop-inspired menu items like the Fruit Tang Clan smoothie and Cypress Hell hot wings. On Sunday at the first “Willie’s Day BBQ,” the official name of his community meal giveaway, he kept things simple: smoky grilled chicken, burgers, corn and mac and cheese wafted from the storefront.
An enticed would-be customer followed his nose to the door and asked if they were taking orders. Green pokes his head out to politely turn him, and his money, away until the next day.
“We’re closed today for a community event, but we’ll be taking orders online again tomorrow,” he said.
His team, blasting Prince from a speaker for the entire street in honor of the artist’s birthday, generously load up Styrofoam containers for the people lining up for their meals. The area of the South Ward where Uncle Willie’s is located has a visible need for initiatives like community meal drives — a high number of homeless people who turn out to Willie’s Day, as well as tenants of the Newark Housing Authority high rises directly behind the restaurant.
The restaurant geared up to feed anywhere between 200 and 300 people, Green said. All in all, more than 200 came to grab their free meal.
Cee’azah Ricketts, one of Green’s employees, performs outreach with a roll of red raffle tickets in hand, asking passers-by if they’re hungry. The question is one delivered without judgment, more like an invitation to a neighborhood block party than an inquiry into people’s need.
Ruben Soto, who currently stays on the streets of the South Ward, thanked Ricketts and made his way down the sidewalk.
“It would be nice if everyone did the way they did. I live on the streets, so to get a nice warm meal, it’s helpful,” he said. “(The virus) has made it a lot harder to get work, right now I can’t even go to the temp agency. I appreciate Uncle Willie’s and everything they’re doing for the community.”