Chicago restaurants head to the suburbs

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“Part of the reason that many restaurant owners/operators (were hesitant) to go to the suburbs before was that there was no activity on weekdays,” says Sam Toia, President and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “It’s hard to run the business when there’s no Monday to Thursday. However, with many people working from home now, they are seeing more business on weekdays. »

The change shows that for all the pain caused by COVID-19 in restaurants — about 15% to 16% of restaurants in Chicago have closed as lockdown orders closed dining rooms — the fallout from the pandemic has also created new opportunities. And it confirms that high-end restaurants can succeed outside the city center. This is good news for suburban business districts, but worrisome for the city. With upscale restaurants available close to home, commuters have less reason to head downtown at a time when Chicago’s economy is hurting.

Famed Gold Coast restaurant Le Colonial opened its first suburban outpost in Lake Forest in July. DineAmic Hospitality, which owns restaurants in the city such as Prime & Provisions and Lyra, is set to open a Greek restaurant at Oakbrook Center in November, following a second Bar Siena which opened in July at the Old Orchard mall in Skokie. By September, Ballyhoo Hospitality, once centered in Chicago, will operate an equal number of restaurants in the city and its suburbs.

Restaurant owners say business boomed in new suburban restaurants, confirming their hunch that commuters wanted more urban-style restaurants. The suburbs also offer more space – for dining rooms, terraces and parking lots – lower rents and less competition from large restaurant groups.

But there are also challenges and suburban eating habits to accommodate. Children’s menus are bigger, and some restaurateurs fear their menu prices will cause a sticker clash in the suburbs. Suburban diners also tend to linger longer at tables, and some aren’t used to the close tables that characterize some restaurants in the city. But no obstacle is more intimidating than finding workers.

Restaurants across the country are still struggling to replenish their staff after extended pandemic shutdowns in early 2021. For suburban restaurants, finding workers with the skills to prepare and serve top-quality food may still be a challenge. more difficult. Most experienced restaurant workers still live in the city, near the region’s largest concentration of high-end establishments. Commuting to work in a remote suburb is a daunting prospect for many.

“Restaurants (employ) blue-collar workers, and for the most part, a lot of our hourly workers don’t live in Wilmette or Winnetka, nor does our management,” says Ballyhoo co-founder Ryan O’Donnell.

This did not block Ballyhoo’s push on the North Shore. Before the pandemic, it only operated in Chicago, with restaurants like Coda di Volpe and Old Pueblo Cantina. With commuters avoiding trips to Chicago after the outbreak of COVID, the group opened Sophia Steak in Wilmette in May 2020. Business continues to boom even as pandemic fears have subsided.

“When I saw the success of Sophia and what was happening in the suburbs, the real estate and the residential market, I said, ‘Oh, we better double that,’ and went to find a property at Winnetka,” O says Donnell.

Ballyhoo opened French bistro Pomeroy in September in Winnetka and Buck Russell bakery and sandwich shop in Wilmette in May. Next up is a Wilmette ice cream shop in August, then a second Sophia Steak in Lake Forest in September.

O’Donnell himself joined the commuter migration in October 2020, moving with his family from the Southport Corridor to Wilmette, where his father and high school friends live.

The story is similar for Chris and Megan Curren, who opened The Graceful Ordinary in St. Charles in November. The couple, who had worked in Chicago restaurants for 15 years, moved to the western suburbs eight years ago with their toddler, but continued to commute to town.

“To be able to continue to make the revenue we were making and provide the level of hospitality that we were used to, we still had to go into town,” says Megan Curren.

This has changed. The Graceful Ordinary, an upscale tavern along the Fox River, attracts diners not only from nearby suburbs, but also from the city. Tuesdays and Thursdays are just as busy as Fridays and Saturdays, and Wednesdays aren’t far off either, says Megan Curren.

In a sense, high-end restaurants follow their customers to the suburbs. Keri Cook Falls, vice president of brokerage services at real estate company @properties, says sales of single-family homes have increased between 2020 and 2021 in nearly every suburb she tracks, with Winnetka up 65.9% and Lake Forest up 83%.

“These movers want the same benefits they had in town,” she says. “That would include high-end catering.”

Concerns about crime are also preventing some commuters from heading downtown to eat on weekends, says Colonial co-owner Joe King. He says looters smashed the windows of his downtown residence during the unrest that hit the Gold Coast and Michigan Avenue last year.

Now many of the customers who once went to his Gold Coast restaurant are coming to Colonial in Lake Forest, where the reservation book is already oversubscribed.

“One of the reasons we went was because people were so excited that Le Colonial was there,” he says. “Everyone here knows the restaurant, inside and out.”

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