Empires of Eateries

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

Gibsons Restaurant Group

GIBSONS BAR & STEAKHOUSE, HUGO’S FROG BAR & FISH HOUSE, LUXBAR, QUARTINO, THE MONTGOMERY CLUB, BACARDI AT THE PARK {grgmc.com}

HISTORY: “I came in as the General Manager in the group’s fourth year,” Managing Partner John Colletti recalls of Gibsons’s early years. “My partners—Founding Fathers Steven Lombardo and Hugo Ralli— gifted me with stock four years after that.” Back in those auspicious days, the restaurant group was really only one concept: Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse on Rush, opened in 1989. Since then, Gibsons Restaurant Group has seen explosive growth—from the day Hugo’s opened in 1997, through the dawning of the Montgomery Club in 2013.

PHILOSOPHY: “We’re very present in our restaurants,” Colletti says with a grin. “Which means we’re very visible to our customer base.” The guest takes center stage at Gibsons, and always has. “We’re adamant about the simple things, like smiling at each customer. We make them feel comfortable in their experience. We don’t up-sell, and we let anyone split and share their dishes.” Plus, Colletti says, being a part of Gibsons doesn’t mean hunkering down in restaurants; the group is very active in the community, serving the homeless, orphans, and veterans through countless charitable functions.

THREE TIPS FOR THE HOPEFUL RESTAURATEUR:

1.    Use quality ingredients and keep dishes simple. Guests know when you embellish dishes to cover up poor quality.
2.    Take care of your employees. Gibsons employs more than a dozen waiters and cooks who have been around for 20-plus years. That says something about how people are treated.
3.    Make sure you’re still having fun—even 25 years after the first restaurant is founded. “Steve and Hugo are still around, and they’re kicking a**,” Colletti laughs.


The Happy Point Restaurant Group

DE CERO TACQUERIA.¡HELLOTACOS!, GRANGE HALL BURGER BAR, SUSHI DOKKU {thehappypoint.com}

Angela Lee is a busy woman—perhaps the busiest on Randolph Street. Linked to her name are four restaurant concepts and a management team named, fittingly, Happy Point.
“It’s just a group of service-loving folks,” she says nonchalantly. “The name actually came from the restaurant managers themselves—the perfect description of the dining experience, tying together both food and hospitality.”
“But it goes beyond that,” Lee claims. “It’s more than just the restaurants. Happiness is what every server, chef, and manager wants from their own experience on the job.” Lee believes that the best workers are the ones who are truly happy in their work. Which is why the Happy Point Restaurant Group is more like a lifestyle than a business entity.

“Here’s a good way to put it,” she explains. “When the ego tells you, ‘Once everything falls into place, I will find peace and be happy,’ you want nothing more than to make sure everything is just-so.” And as human experience tells us, happiness begets happiness. So even though you can count different concepts in the Happy Point family—fresh, authentic Mexican tacos; succulent, juicy burgers; refreshing tequila-based cocktails; and tender, sea- fresh rolls—the infectious happiness is the same.
How do you build on that kind of gustatory glee? It just grows organically, really. As part of that growth, Happy Point is reaching out for a new concept, somewhere in the West Loop neighborhood. When and where exactly? Follow the trail of smiles, and you’ll be there in no time.

 

ROCKIT RANCH PRODUCTIONS

ROCKIT BAR & GRILL, SUNDA, ¡AY CHIWOWA!, BOTTLEFORK, THE UNDERGROUND, ROCKIT BURGER BAR {rockitranch.com}

From the pulse of nightclub life, Billy Dec, Arturo Gomez, and Brad Young emerged to start an empire. It wasn’t premeditated, really, but it spun into a kind of success none of them could have envisioned. “Billy and I were working together as partners in a club called Circus back in 1998,” Young remembers. “I had come from an unsatisfying career in investment banking and had gone to school with Billy, who was already immersed in the nightlife business.” A change of heart led the two—along with Gomez—to drop Circus and start Rockit Ranch Productions in February of 2002. That kind of entrepreneurial success led to greater things— specifically, filling the untapped niche of upscale bar-and-grills. In 2004, after exciting Chicagoans with DJs and high-end cocktails, the trio turned the opposite direction and played to a crowd hungry for great meals, pubs with a social vibe, and neighborhood charm.

A decade later, the Rockit boys have wowed us (and our palates) with the likes of Sunda, ¡AY CHIWOWA!, the impending Bottlefork (helmed by Four Seasons vet Kevin Hickey), and ever more locations of the original Rockit Bar & Grill and its offshoot, Rockit Burger Bar. With all of that in a meager 10 years, we wondered how the group keeps up its creativity and what obstacles have threatened their success.


What has been the most challenging aspect of starting and maintaining Rockit Ranch?

Brad Young: The challenges are constant, but growing at a comfortable rate is the hardest. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself, but you want to take advantage of opportunities when they come to you. You’re re-evaluating concepts every day to make sure you can handle everything you start. You also want to make sure any new concepts complement what you already have.


There are lots of restaurant groups in Chicago and across the country. What sets you guys apart from the crowd?

BY: We each know our own roles. There’s very little overlap in what we do, partner to partner. Where some problems may occur with other groups—say, with two friends who want to open a restaurant—is that they likely share too much in common. That gets old after a while. It’s important that you have partnerships that complement each other.


Any new development we should stay hungry for?

BY: Bottlefork, right next door to Rick Bayless’s place. It offers New American cuisine with locally-sourced ingredients, global inspiration, and a seamless blend of alcohol and food. We even have a kitchen line where the chefs and bartenders work together.

 

Brendan Sodikoff / Hogsalt

AU CHEVAL, BAVETTE’S, DILLMAN’S, THE DOUGHNUT VAULT, ELECTRIC DINER, GILT BAR, MAUDE’S LIQUOR BAR {hogsalt.com}


What’s that Brendan Sodikoff up to now? Whatever it is, it’s probably a bunch of hogwash. Er, hogsalt, that is. No, really—Hogsalt, just part of the empire that Sodikoff has built, is an online venue for images, stories, and education about food and drink. It’s all connected to the restaurants he’s launched, of course—French-inspired eateries and fun-loving renditions of Americana that are cocktail-focused and keen on the classics. Over at Bavette’s, for example, you can find a satisfying cut of flatiron steak cozying up to a mound of hand-cut frites with béarnaise (oh-so-French), or amble into Gilt Bar, where the pièce de resistance might be Pork Belly with a Moscow Mule.

Concept to concept, Sodikoff dances with the politics of food and makes space for both simplicity and adventure. As the chef/owner himself attests, “Repetitious acts are really hard for me and that’s all cooking is.” So, after starting a career at Lettuce Entertain You, he launched his own ever-changing empire. But when asked about opening new destinations, he’s deliciously vague: “Yes,” and “I don’t know” come out in response, leaving us wondering what’s next. If his maturation as a restaurateur is any clue, we’ll like what we get. “At the beginning of my career, I believed in ‘new,’” he says. “At some point, I totally abandoned ‘new’ and focused on ‘good.’”

 

Francesca's Restaurant Group

FRANCESCA’S RESTAURANTS, DISOTTO ENOTECA, GLAZED AND INFUSED, DAVANTI ENOTECA, CHENETTA (COMING 2014), AND OTHERS {miafrancesca.com}

Italian cuisine courses through the veins of Chicago, and nowhere is that more evident than at the 22-year-old Mia Francesca in Wrigleyville. A meager pool of money and the ingenuity of Owner Scott Harris launched the beloved restaurant in the early ‘90s. It has found a loyal following across Chicago for two big reasons: consistently delicious food, and a brand of hospitality that makes every guest a member of the Francesca’s family.

“Mr. Harris has rooted the concept in the cuisines of Umbria, Tuscany, and Rome—with the design of each restaurant patterned after a traditional Roman trattoria,” Director of Marketing Jodi Triest explains.
The menu, meanwhile has always been consistent. Changing every month to match ingredient availability, the restaurants’ offerings reflect the bounty of the Mediterranean, as well as produce from the likes of Gunthrop Farms and Kershaw Farms.
“Scott focuses on simple ingredients that speak for themselves,” she says. “And that comes to the fore in dishes like Pollo alla Romano, a roasted half chicken with rosemary-garlic butter sauce, and the Linguine Frutti di Mare with clams, mussels, shrimp, and cherry tomatoes.”
And though the Francesca’s family of restaurant is growing immensely—23 locations for the namesake restaurant and counting—Harris is still heavily involved in menu planning and restaurant development, while Master Sommelier Lisa Mango manages the group’s simple, sublime 70-bottle wine list.

“Mr. Harris travels to Italy regularly, along with the chefs at all our restaurants. They spent time abroad to get inspiration and learn about what’s happening the culinary world.”

With all of this success simmering, is there more to come? “We’ll be scouting locations for new concepts in 2014,” Triest says. “And Chenetta, an Italian bruschetteria featuring seasonal bruschetta selections and light fare, will be opening in River North next year as well.” Whatever else comes our way courtesy of Francesca’s Restaurant Group, it will be sure to follow the same model as all of the restaurants before them. And wherever you stop by for a meal, you’ll always be part of the family.

 

Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants

RIVA CRAB HOUSE ON NAVY PIER, TUSCANY (MULTIPLE LOCATIONS), THE CRYSTAL GARDENS, LANDSHARK BEER GARDEN, PHIL STEFANI’S 437 RUSH, TAVERN ON RUSH, CASTAWAYS BAR AND GRILL, CHANGO LOCO, MUSEUM CAMPUS CAFÉ {stefanirestaurants.com}

With a history stretching back to 1980, Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants has quite the reputation. Since the opening of the group’s flagship concept, Stefani’s, scores of devotees have sailed through doors of their burgeoning concepts, wowed by Stefani’s commitment to high-quality offerings and, above all else, the satisfaction of the customer. Here’s a snapshot of the group, its vision, and its place in the world of Chicago restaurants, offered by COO Steven Hartenstein.

Vision: “Phil’s vision is all about quality, family, and friends. I started with him about 20 years ago, and what I still love about the group is that we’re not just another restaurant conglomerate. We’re very much tuned in to the needs of the customer.”

Day-to-day life: “We don’t operate our company from a desk. We have our feet on the ground and our hands in the mix. I might be working a dining room on a holiday, or greeting guests at the front door on a Saturday. Wherever I am, you can be sure it’s in one of our concepts.”

Mistakes you've learned from: “It’s not about what we want—it’s about what the customer wants. Even when we do a tasting and we don’t like what we’re trying, but the guest does, we’ll go with it. That’s what keeps the company going. It’s also really about the front line—bussers, cooks, servers, greeters. It’s about making sure they believe in the concept, because ultimately, they are the ones who make us look good.”

Favorite spot for a meal and a drink: “I like having a drink and a light bite somewhere, then moving on for another snack somewhere else. I don’t like sitting down for a full meal in one place. That’s why I love the Stefani Group’s concepts—I like them all for different things.”

 

One Off Hospitality

AVEC, BIGSTAR, BLACKBIRD, THE PUBLICAN, PUBLICAN QUALITY MEATS, THE VIOLET HOUR, NICO OSTERIA {oneoffhospitality.com}

When it comes to world-class restaurateurs, one thing is certain—nothing is certain. Which is why the good ones treat each opportunity like it might be the last. That’s One Off’s mantra, anyway, and it means that each concept they craft, from the cocktail culture of Violet Hour to the Italian seafood-stocked menus of Nico, is treated like a magnum opus.

The One Off mentality is perhaps best described by the people who shape its success, clinging to simple but decisive words: “One Off is the opposite of big branding, knock ‘em out and spread ‘em out entrepreneurship. One Off suggests that we always strive to bring something unique into the world, and when you get right down to it, our lives themselves are one offs.”

So take the advice to heart, and relish a sweet cocktail with a sizzling steak and a cheesecake chaser. One Off will be there to cheer you on.


BOKA RESTAURANT GROUP

BALENA, BOKA, BOKA CATERING GROUP (BCG), ELAINE’S COFFEE CALL, GIRL & THE GOAT, GT FISH & OYSTER, THE J. PARKER, LITTLE GOAT DINER, PERENNIAL VIRANT, LITTLE GOAT BREAD {bokagrp.com}

We sat down with co-founder and visionary Kevin Boehm to find out how he and Partner Rob Katz launched BOKA Group, and how it’s developed since coming on the scene in 2002.

Word has it you opened your own restaurant after college using money you saved from waiting tables. Is that true? 100-percent. I dropped out of college with nothing but $500 and a beat-up jeep. I had wanted my own restaurant since I was 10 years old so the next step was a no-brainer: wait tables, doing double-shifts, until I had enough money to open my own place. In three years, I opened Lazy Days Cafe—a six-seater open for lunch and dinner, dishing up coastal cuisine in Seaside, Florida.

It has been said that both you and Rob “got your education opening and selling restaurants before the age of 30.” What were some of the biggest lessons you learned in that process? The restaurants I opened initially were small enough that I could make mistakes and learn from them. I was my own accountant, attorney—everything. And with that kind of experience, the biggest thing you learn is to surround yourself with people who know more than you do.

All your concepts combined, BOKA boasts a heaping helping of accolades. Are there some that are more meaningful to you than others, or ones you’d still like to receive? The biggest thing that ever happened to us was when Chef Giuseppe Tentori, who came to us from Charlie Trotter’s, received Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in America in 2008. We were sitting at a table in a very serious meeting when he came by and asked to see Rob, my partner, and me. When we heard he had something important to say, we almost panicked—we thought he was going to quit. [Laughs]

It’s been over 20 years since you and Rob opened your first restaurants. Is running a restaurant group still exciting? What are some of the ongoing challenges? It’s different now. In the beginning, you have one restaurant that you’re at all the time. That was easy in a way, because all you had to do was think about that one restaurant. Now, we have to think in a macro sense. I’d say the majority of my days are a lot of 1s and 2s, or 9s and 10s. I’m either having the time of my life, or the worst day ever. Openings don’t get easier, that’s for sure. We opened Little Goat a little over a year ago, and that was one of the hardest openings ever.

Tell us a memorable story from your time running restaurants—something that captures the life of a successful restaurateur. At the very beginning, when BOKA was the only restaurant in our group, Rob and I opened and closed the restaurant every day. To end the night, we would sit at the bar, have a glass of wine, and talk about the restaurant—what our dreams were, and how sure we were achieving them. Recently, we were finishing a night touring all the restaurants and snuck into BOKA after closing. We did what we always used to, sitting at the bar with glasses of wine in hand. We looked back over the last 10 years and talked about everything we had accomplished. It was really magical reminiscing about simpler times and realizing how much we’ve grown.


LETTUCE ENTERTAIN YOU ENTERPRISES

ANTICO POSTO, BEATRIX, BIG BOWL, BUB CITY, CAFE BA-BA-REEBA!, JOE’S SEAFOOD, STEAK & STONE CRAB, L2O, MON AMI GABI, NACION- AL 27, OSTERIA VIA STATO, REEL CLUB, RPM ITALIAN, TRU, WILDFIRE {leye.com}

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) was something of a self- made American dream-come-true. The restaurant industry had been the life of Founder Rich Melman for much of his teenage years— from working behind the counter at the local soda shop, to selling restaurant supplies, to working in his father’s restaurants in Chicago.

The year 1971 brought a serendipitous change for Melman, however, who had long wished to plant the roots of his own concept. It was then that the young entrepreneur met real estate businessman Jerry Orzoff. With a $17,000 kick, the two started Chicago’s own R.J. Grunts—a casual, healthy restaurant in Lincoln Park that spoke to the Woodstock generation. It offered vegetarian, organic, and macrobiotic foods that ranged from hamburgers and salads to juices and milkshakes. Chicago hadn’t seen anything quite like it.

With R.J. Grunts’ success, more concepts appeared in the LEYE portfolio: 1973 brought us Fritz That’s It!, 1975 saw the launch of Jonathan Livingston Seafood, and 1976 embraced Lawrence of Oregano. But the casual concepts that had, to that point, made up LEYE were soon augmented by a revised focus on fine-dining. The first of the group’s high-end concepts was born when LEYE took over Chicago’s iconic Pump Room in 1976.

As industry insiders can attest, LEYE blossomed throughout the ‘70s and into later decades. Discerning diners began to follow the group through its growth, clamoring for ever-new and fresh ideas from Melman himself. Those ideas—both culinary and practical— were buttressed by Melman’s creativity, attention to detail, and a true understanding of what guests want, which led to expanding his repertoire to Asian, French, and Italian cuisines.

But while the evident success of LEYE might easily rest on the shoulders of its long-sung founder, Melman is quick to credit the many talented, hard- working individuals who have given the group rise and sustained it for so long. “We’re constantly focused on hiring, training, and developing the right people and keeping them happy,” Melman says. “You can tell a lot about a person by the types of people they choose to surround themselves with.”

With a team of veteran partners and fresh faces encircling the visionary—including sons R.J. and Jerrod and daughter Molly—we know one thing is for sure: the energy and creative spirit of the Chicago restaurant scene is sure to soar, from the casual to the elegant.
Oh—and Melman’s favorite dish from his sprawling empire? He still craves the R.J. Grunts cheeseburger (cooked medium-rare) with cottage fries.

“It was the first thing I cooked,” Melman says. “I can’t help but be fond of it. I think it’s as good a dish as any we’ve ever served.”

 

DineAmic Group

STONE LOTUS, BULL & BEAR, PUBLIC HOUSE, SIENA TAVERN {dineamicgroup.com}

Like many friendships, theirs started in college. Little did David Rekhson and Lucas Stoioff know, however, that their friendship would lead them to Chicago and, ultimately, to the top of a world- class restaurant group.
DineAmic Group, the pair’s creation from back in 2005, has seen every color of the restaurant world since its inception, while painting some new ones along the way. With Stoioff keen on marketing and Rekhson a veteran of concept management, the two had no problems hitting their first jackpot in 2006: Stone Lotus. DineAmic reconditioned the spot on North Orleans into a night club with electric personality.

The concept stuck. And while they sold it back in 2010 after five dynamic years to make room for their food service concepts, it vaulted the DineAmic Group to success. What followed was the high-end sports bar, Bull & Bear, a River North fixture that has since become known for its beer list, craft whiskeys, and cheeky stock market theme. “It’s a place to watch games and hang out,” Rekhson explains, “but just like Stone Lotus, we apply a fine-dining mantra.”

Thereafter, Public House took to the streets with American food, gastropub-style. That was 2010—when higher-end pubs and gourmet bar food were emerging, fast and furious. But DineAmic was well rooted in Chicago by then, and had no problems bringing in the crowds. “Stop by for a beer—we have 100 different types at Public House—or dig into something off one of our smokers,” Rekhson suggests. Goose Island even brews a unique beer just for this quintessential gastropub every month.

The casual bar feel of the early teens eventually gave way to an Italian concept helmed by Top Chef phenom Fabio Viviani in the form of Siena Tavern, circa 2013. It’s a contemporary Italian restaurant in all respects, sporting a rustic menu, a semi-open kitchen, and a pizza and crudo bar that’s its own eye candy.

Four concepts in under a decade is a success story by any estimation, but the DineAmic Group isn’t slowing down. “We have several projects in the pipeline for 2014,” Rekhson says, “including a new Siena Tavern location in Miami and two new concepts in Chicago.”

While the details are forthcoming, the group’s motivation remains the same. “It’s such a multi-faceted business,” Rekhson says. “In a single day, you could be tasting a sauce to check the salt level, dealing with a lease negotiation, tackling an HR issue, working on a design, or picking out a bathroom fixture. You just never know what you’re going to be doing, and that’s what so exciting about it.”
 

*Top photo (from left to right): Melissa Ganser, Angela Lee, Dustin Smallheer, Jessica Green, Breezy Rosas, Kelsie Mayer