CHAMPAIGN — For the past two years, Sahil Contractor has missed his family's Thanksgiving dinner to feed the homeless and others who were alone for the holiday.
When asked why, the young owner of two Wingstop restaurants — including one at 512 S. Neil St., C — simply says, "I've been so blessed in my life."
For holding his annual "Wingsgiving" event and making other contributions, the Champaign man will be awarded the NAACP of Champaign County's "Unity in the Community" award at its annual Freedom Fund Banquet on Friday.
"Sahil has committed his life to helping others," said Lucretia Williams, who nominated Contractor.
He "was taught from a very early age what a blessing it is to share with others and give back to those in need without expectations of receiving something in return," continued Williams, who heard about Contractor and his free food give-away on Thanksgiving through a TV news report. "I thought, 'Who does this?' I immediately went to Wingstop to meet him.
"Being a business owner myself, I was just really impressed by his life and his passion for community service. It's really heartwarming."
Contractor was born in Chicago and grew up in Arlington Heights. After graduating from Rolling Meadows High School in 2012, he studied business management at a community college in Palatine, but later dropped out.
"School really wasn't for me," he explained. "I'm more of a hands-on person. So when the restaurant came up for sale, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to start my career and test myself, because the business was a performing so poorly, and see if I could turn it around."
Contractor was only 21 when he bought the franchise in August 2015 from his father — Chicago-area businessman Salil Contractor — and his father's business partners. Prior to then, the restaurant had been losing $3,000 to $4,000 a month.
The son took a different managerial approach.
"It was a matter of me being in the restaurant from open to close seven days a week and learning the community," said Contractor, who managed to turn around the finances in eight months or so. Last week, he broke $1 million in sales and won a company award.
"Hospitality is my number-one priority," he continued, explaining that he and his small staff bring guests' orders to their tables, refill their drinks, bus their tables and thank them for stopping by when they leave. "Basically, I treat (customers) how I want to be treated times 10. It's all about their dining experience, and I don't take a dime of anyone's business for granted."
He and his dad, who owns and operates a number of Wingstops and Dunkin' Donuts in the Chicago area, opened a Springfield-area location last December.
The younger Contractor held his first Wingsgiving in 2016. During the event, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., he and his staff, who volunteered their time, served 600 to 700 free meals consisting of five boneless wings, fries, a dinner roll and drink.
"It's not just the homeless," he said. "A lot of college kids can't go home or be with their family. So it's really for anyone who doesn't have a warm meal.
"Last year, we were slightly lower, but I didn't do any marketing," Contractor continued. "This year, we're doing a huge campaign. I want to do at least 1,000 meals minimum in Champaign and in Springfield, as well."
In addition to the Wingsgiving events, Contractor sponsors a Christmas toy drive. Last year, he also put on an Easter egg hunt at Crystal Lake Park, benefiting Carle's pediatric unit.
Contractor is also a songwriter and recording artist who has released a couple of "melodic hip hop" songs under the name Illi. He hopes to start his own label, called Signature Music, which he'll use to give back "on a much larger scale."
Until then, he wants to continue to help the Champaign and Springfield communities and inspire other business owners to do the same.
"Six hundred people might be a small number ... but that's 600 people that didn't have anything prior to that," he said.
The NAACP of Champaign County will present awards to five people or organizations at its annual Freedom Fund Celebration on Friday in Champaign.
The honorees, whose stories we'll tell throughout this week:
— Freedom Fighter Award: Karen Simms, C-U Trauma and Resiliency Initiative.
— Interfaith Award: The Hope Center of Vineyard Church.
— Unity in the Community: Sahil Contractor, business owner.
— Youth Advancement: Tracy Dace, DREAAM (Driven to Reach Academic Achievement for Males) program.
— President's Award: Audrey Keaton-Mock, Unit 4 schools.