CHAMPAIGN – The smell of the smoke from burning wood emanates from the aquarium-style smoker at Wood ‘N Hog Barbecue’s Urbana location and spills out onto the street outside, pulling customers into the Urbana restaurant that used to be Li’l Porgy’s.
That same smell lingers on owner Michael McDonald’s clothes every day when he gets home, a reminder of another day of the hard work that has made Wood ‘N Hog into a successful business over its six years of existence. It’s also that work ethic that took McDonald from a childhood spent in a Chicago housing project, surrounded by addiction and violence, to where he is now.
McDonald was recognized by the Illinois Jaycees as one of its Outstanding Young Persons of Illinois in March for his building a business that is now entrenched in the community.
Every step along the way, McDonald is quick to point out, he’s received a helping hand that he was ready to accept.
“We’ve truly been blessed,” he said.
Growing up in the Harold Ickes Homes with a mother who suffered from addiction, McDonald constantly found ways to keep himself busy. As a high schooler, he played sports and participated in student council. He kept his grades high enough to finish near the top of his class.
All the while, he had a protector. When unavoidable skirmishes found him, his older sister, Okema Battle, would step in and fight the boys who threatened her little brother. When she moved out of her family’s home, the 16-year-old McDonald joined her, even though she was only 17.
“Even when I didn’t know she was looking out for me, she was,” he said.
His exposure to the restaurant world came when he’d meet his sister at her workplace, Dat Donuts. While he waited, he swept the floors, trying to prove himself to owner Darryl Townsend. Eventually, he earned his spot on the payroll, and Townsend became a father figure to him, McDonald said.
The two grew so close that Townsend drove him to University of Illinois when he was accepted into the Bridge-Transition program, another helping hand he was ready to accept. The program offered him a chance to come down to campus early and prepare academically and socially for college.
“I didn’t have the best ACT score at the time, but I played sports, had a great GPA, I was a great student, and had the willingness to learn, the drive to be excellent,” he said. “I never would have gotten into the University of Illinois without that program. What that program did for me is that it allowed us to come down in the summer of ’99 and get some help in English, Math, Reading, but also navigating the University… So , I had some familiarity with the campus and the expectations. I wasn’t lost when I got down here as a college student. “
After graduating with a degree in political science, he worked in social services in the area, taking jobs at Cunningham Children’s Home, The Pavilion, and Access Initiative.
In 2013, he and his wife, Tasha, decided to move to the Chicago area when Townsend offered him a job as general manager at Dat Donuts and the barbecue restaurant he had recently purchased, Uncle John’s. That move, though, was short-lived, and the McDonald family, which now included two children, moved back to Champaign to be closer to Tasha’s family in Farmer City.
After 8 months of commuting to Chicago, McDonald proposed that Townsend open a restaurant in Champaign. Townsend declined, but the idea stuck.
In 2015, he decided to leave his job and begin the process of making his vision happen, even though he said he lacked a business plan that would allow him to secure a loan.
In the summer of 2016, McDonald and his sister opened Wood N ‘Hog opened in Pirtle Plaza in north Champaign, a few blocks west of Douglass Park.
The bumps in the road were numerous. On opening day, the restaurant filled with smoke, because McDonald didn’t realize it would have to be released. For more than a year he didn’t pay food and beverage taxes, because he didn’t know they existed. Vendors required him to pay cash on delivery instead offering him credit.
But McDonald was eager to learn and to work.
“I hustled,” he said. “It was a journey. But it allowed us an opportunity to sustain, too. So, we never spent more than what we had because we didn’t have it to spend. When we ran out of food, we ran out of food. And the community supported that aspect of what we were doing. “
One day early in Wood N ‘Hog’s existence, McDonald was surprised when a man with a familiar face stepped out of his car and walked into the new restaurant.
In front of him was Illinois football coach Lovie Smith, who made an order after McDonald took a photo with him.
“I think it was his attempt to go to the other side of University,” he said. “And his coaching staff would do the same thing regularly. They would do the same thing and support us. There was an intentionality with that. As much as the bad things people can say about him, as far as what he did or didn’t do as far as recruiting, what he did to bridge the community was very impactful for us. “
Smith began ordering from Wood N ‘Hog’s for recruiting visits, team get-togethers and postgame meals, and that eventually gave way to Wood N’ Hog selling food inside the stadium.
While the restaurant was gaining popularity at Memorial Stadium and through online orders, though, it didn’t gain the traffic it has now until 2019, when McDonald received word that Li’l Porgy’s owner Bill Van der Wyngaerde would be closing the restaurant’s Urbana location . After speaking with Van der Wyngaerde, McDonald subleased the building, and he opened a restaurant with a built-in customer base. To this day, he said, people walk in and ask for a Lemon Shakeup, a Li’l Porgy’s specialty that his restaurant doesn’t serve.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, McDonald didn’t have to lay off a single employee, he said, partially because of the customers who tipped generously on takeout orders, and partially because of the frugal nature he developed during his first few years as a restaurant owner.
McDonald is still developing a plan to draw more customers to the downtown location he and Battle opened in 2019, which gets far less foot traffic than the Urbana location, but he’s learned to work through those difficult situations.
“Every bump, every bruise, I own, I embrace,” he said. “Because those challenges sustained us through COVID, through the minimum wage increase, (the increase) in food cost. I’ve gotten so used to not buying stuff that I can’t afford. “
McDonald has learned that accountability is crucial to developing and sustaining a reputation as a small business with what he calls a “mom and pop vibe.” Either he or Battle are in the restaurant every day. They respond politely to every online review, positive or negative.
And through adversity, they’ve built a thriving business.
“When people ask, ‘How,’ it was passion, it was drive, and I couldn’t afford to fail,” he said. “I worked. I opened the store, and I closed the store. I bought the food and I cooked the food. I’d wipe down floors and wipe down walls. It was an every day job for me. When I couldn’t afford to hire employees, we were the employees. Even though I couldn’t afford to pay myself.
“Being able to be recognized and have an impact on a community with so many great choices, it’s refreshing. It validates the 18 hour days, it validates the sleepless nights, it validates breathing in wood smoke. It’s validation, and it’s definitely appreciated, and it doesn’t go unnoticed from me. “