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Business Thu Oct 23 2014

Local Restaurateurs on Making it in Chicago

how to be a restaurateur in chicago.jpg
Packing House, the former Market, recently closed to the public after reconcepting only six months ago. SmallBar Division, the 10-year old veteran of Division Street announced its impending closure this week. They are among the newest casualties to join the shuttering list that includes Laughing Bird and Cicchetti, which shockingly closed after only 10 months despite glowing reviews.

Why those restaurants closed is a mixture of many factors, but all are testament that making it in the restaurant industry isn't easy.

As a model, opening a restaurant is arguably the stupidest thing anyone can do -- thin margins, large overhead, unpredictability, seasonal dips (say Q1 to anyone in the restaurant business in Chicago and they reach for the nearest bottle of whiskey and call their accountant). Yet we continue to do it in this city, almost to the point of exhaustion.

In a panel at the recent Chicago premiere of Taste Talks, "Ten Years Later -- Building Restaurants That Last," Donnie Madia (One Off Hospitality), Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Michael Nahabedian (Naha) and Paul Virant (Vie, Vistro & Perennial Virant) convened to answer the overarching question, "How do you make it in this city?"

"The one thing that's constant is that it's self other and not selfish," said Madia. "If you're selfish, your partnerships will diminish over time."

Nahabedian, who laid the groundwork for much of fine dining in River North with Naha, spoke to neighborhood integration as a factor for longevity.

"You become part of the neighborhood, you become a part of what's going on, you entrench yourself," said Nahabedian. "The great thing about a restaurant is that it really becomes a part of the community, and even though Naha is fine dining, it still feels like a mom and pop place."

Jason Hammel, most known for putting Logan Square on the culinary map with Lula Cafe, spoke of the impact of hospitality.

"I felt this incredible hospitality from Chicago when I first moved into Logan Square," said Hammel, originally from the East Coast. "This city itself is hospitable. As you get older and grow as a restaurant, you start to think about how to still make that real every day. That's the part I want to keep alive."

Madia echoed Hammel's sentiments. "The question is, are you a neighborhood restaurant, or are you a restaurant in a neighborhood? If you are a neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood versus just trying to be a neighborhood restaurant, you get to know your guests and build those relationships."

The design and space also play an important factor.

"It's not about being trendy or having a neat light fixture," said Nahabedian. "You have to have a space that can still stay fresh past year 10, past year 15."

But once you build it doesn't mean you can sit back and relax.

"You have to spend the money over the course of time to keep that original look and feel," said Virant. "It's really important to upkeep your restaurant."

Finding the perfect space is important and all panelists agreed that spaces tend to find you, but even with the perfect formula, real estate could be the ultimate challenge.

"The food, the hospitality is important," said Madia, "but if you're in a space you can't afford, then you won't be in business."


At the opening of their ninth restaurant, Momotaro, I turned to Rob Katz of BOKA Group for insight on what keeps them successful.

Outside of having the right formula -- concept, staff, product, brand, marketing plan -- and just being plain lucky, what's the one lesson you learned in the beginning that you'd say had the largest impact of where the group is today?

From the very beginning, Kevin and I learned to be true to ourselves and not try to grow too quickly. When we had our first success at BOKA we kept our heads down and were driven to be more efficient, budget conscience, have better training and to surround ourselves with like-minded, motivated people. We cut our teeth in Lincoln Park because we knew that market and we were confident that we could be special there. We set our sights on a larger scale for the future, but it was the slow growth and infrastructure that we planned that allowed us to develop so many concepts under one umbrella. Some of these concepts we have been dreaming about for 10 years. We aren't about the latest trend, we aren't trying to catch a wave. We are always waiting for just the right moment for us as a restaurant group.

Is there still room in this city for the single restaurant guy?

Absolutely, that's where everyone starts. I don't think Chicagoans are fooled into thinking that restaurants are better because they are part of a group. There are advantages and disadvantages to running multiple locations and it's not for everyone. Some restaurateurs want to cover every single aspect of the restaurant from polish to product, so if you enjoy complete control, that's a great gig for a standalone restaurant. Collaboration is on on the daily agenda for a restaurant group and you benefit from many minds and personalities working for a common goal. Working in that way, we can use economies of scale to order product, staff and market ourselves in a larger way. It's just a matter of style sometimes. We started BOKA like that single restaurant guy and I like to think that even though we have the good fortune of a successful group, Kevin and I are just a couple of restaurateurs who are as excited and passionate about what we do today as we were 12 years ago when we started this company.

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Matt / October 27, 2014 3:23 PM

Very well written! Chicagoans are generally foodies but it's tough because there are so many places to go that want that "neighborhood restaurant" feel. With so much variety, it must be more difficult to find regulars.

mare / October 29, 2014 11:06 AM

I don't agree w/ Matt's comment, and I'd like to meet the restaurant owner or worker who actually recognizes his or her "regulars." We were going to our local wine shop for about 4 years before we were ever recognized. We patronize 2 or 3 restaurants in our 'hood, and heaven forbid anyone gives us a glimmer of recognition. It's always like we're strangers. I'd love to be acknowledged as if we've been there before - even if they're faking it.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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