The nucleus of Swedish in the Andersonville area of Chicago receives a well deserved, long overdue recognition.
Vasa Order of America honors Ingvar Wikström with the 2012 title "Swedish-American of the Year" for his engagement in the Swedish-American community and for sharing delightful Swedish cuisine on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
“I have always been very Swedish and I love promoting Sweden in America,” said Wikström. “I appreciate what the Swedes have done for the U.S. and I’m proud of being apart of it.”
Ingvar Wikström ran Wikström's Delicatessen, on Clark Street in Chicago's Andersonville, from 1975 until it closed in 2007.
Five years have since passed, but Wikström is still familiar with the streets of his old Andersonville neighborhood. He walks confidently down Clark Street in the afternoon sun and stops at every corner to talk to old friends and customers.
Many prominent visitors have been in the store on Clark Street, including King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia. To Wikström, however, every visitor to the store was a prominent person. That is evident after a few blocks of walking, when he ends up in front of a homeless man sitting on the ground. It turns out the two are old friends.
“It was better when you had your store because then I could at least get some free coffee,” said the man to Wikström, holding an empty plastic cup.
In order to grow the business and bring people to the Andersonville area, Wikström took the initiative to offer free coffee and sandwiches for the first three months. Free coffee eventually became a tradition at Wikström’s Delicatessen for over 30 years.
“Everyone went to Erickson’s Delicatessen across the street so I offered free coffee and sandwiches to bring people in,” he said. “People had not seen anything like it before and they loved it."
Ingvar Wikström arrived in the run-down Andersonville neighborhood in 1975, and he has been one of the most progressive souls to turn a broken neighborhood into one of Chicago's finest. Not only did he entice people to Andersonville with coffee and sandwiches, but he also encouraged people to join Andersonville Chamber of Commerce—an organization for which he served as president for five years. Through his dedication to the chamber, he created many successful programs, such as the Miss Andersonville competition, Taste of Andersonville (now called Midsommar Fest), as well as a street cleaning program for the Andersonville area, which was recognized in the Chicago Tribune’s series Faces of Chicago in 1985.
Most people who have visited Andersonville remember the Swedish inspired blue and yellow water tower. Wikström has climbed to the top and repainted it three times—the last time was just five years ago.
“I had it done before and it needed to be repainted,” said Wikström and shrugged his shoulders as if it was nothing.
There is no question Ingvar Wikström influenced Andersonville, but through catering he also created more awareness of Swedish foods worldwide.
“I have done catering for many Swedish organizations, Mayor Daley in Chicago and shipping to Hawaii, Japan, Australia and Argentina,” he said.
Wikström's recognition as the Swedish American of the Year for 2012 is not the first honor Wikström has received for his giving, hard working and business-oriented mind. In 2007, he received “Entrepreneur of the Year” in Cook County. The same year he also received “Swede of the Year” from the Central Swedish Committee. Other honors include “Humanitarian Award” from Swedish American Hospital, Emeritus Director Lifetime Member of Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, Service Award for 23 years of service at Scandinavian Day in Vasa Park, and Svenska Akademi Föreningens Diploma for Excellence in Swedish cooking and maintaining Swedish culinary traditions outside Sweden.
Wikström grew up on a farm in Skåne where he learned at an early age the value of hard work and how to produce food from natural ingredients. This background and knowledge would prove to be a recipe for success for Wikstrom's future life's work.
The Swede's first taste of America was during his studies at Augustana College, in Rock Island, IL. He went back home to Sweden shortly after finishing his studies, but was eager to return to America.
“America grows on you, and when I went back I was already bitten by the American bug,” said Wikström. “It’s in your blood, you were more free to do things and to start things in America.”
Ingvar Wikström is still selling Swedish delicacies through his website: www.wikstromsgourmet.com
Text & Photography: Erik Kinnhammar