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Interview Thu Jan 31 2013
Chef Cleetus Friedman called last night at about 8:30, two days after announcing the closure of his beloved locavore deli, City Provisions. "My biggest priority is getting through the next few days of closing up the store. I've had the hardest 48 hours of my life."
For now, the focus is on winding down the restaurant. Chefs have been coming by to purchase the perishables. Friedman said he hopes a restaurateur will come take over the space as a "turnkey" space. Otherwise, he'll have to liquidate the furniture, equipment and fixtures.
Meanwhile, Friedman's less location-reliant projects continue on. His popular collaborations with local breweries will continue, in beer-friendly restaurants and bars like Hopleaf, Fountainhead and Bangers and Lace. "Lillie's Q is friendly with the Dark Horse guys, so we'll likely release the Dark Horse collab ['Hundred Grand Stout'] there."
Friedman said the farm dinner series at Chicago Botanic Garden, which were already announced, will happen as planned, and his own farm dinners will be announced in March. Beyond a handful of weddings already on the books, the catering side of City Provisions is also on hold.
Aside from all that, the future is yet to be determined. "I know what I want to do, but I don't want to jump into anything too soon."
In his letter to customers about the closing, Friedman lamented that "sustainability ... wasn't sustainable." He laughed on the phone when I asked him about the reaction that line has gotten in news articles and social media, and then went into more detail.
"You can charge $20-25 an entree and people are going to pay that, no problem, because that's what they expect. But you don't expect that walking into a sandwich shop, for a sandwich, chips and a pickle. You think, 'I can get that at Subway!'
"I went to see Mama last weekend, and went to Red Robin beforehand. I ordered a drink and it was $9 -- and it was a crappy cocktail. So I looked at the menu and the burgers were $11! But it's a sit-down restaurant, so people think of it differently than a supposedly fast food place.
"When I said I'm putting as much into a sandwich, chips and a pickle what other chefs are putting into a dinner entree, I mean it, I really am. When a Yelp reviewer complains about $11 for a sandwich, I want to tell them to come into the store on a Wednesday and meet our egg supplier, whose eggs are $4 a dozen. Help me make mayonnaise by hand -- separate the yolks. Meet the farmer who gives me my pork, and help me break down the pig. Set aside the ham, brine it and hang it up to smoke, and wait for it to be ready. Just wait for it. Then get the fresh bread from our baker and make the sandwich and tell me it's not worth $11."
In spite of this -- an explanation I've heard him give before, in person and in interviews -- Friedman didn't sound negative, just frustrated. The outpouring of support has helped buoy him.
"The amount of support that we had was tremendous, but it wasn't enough. This isn't a bad location, it's a great location," he said. "It just wasn't right for my business. There might not be anywhere that's right for it."
We've not heard the last from Cleetus Friedman. Stay tuned to see what the next chapter turns out to be.