I had the privilege last weekend to return to Chicago for the first time in 14 years. The trip had a packed itinerary and was superbly put together. I attended the NRA show, which is so big it’s overwhelming at times, and came away with what I was after. However, my real reason to attend the trip was to get into as many operations as possible and steal the best ideas for use in my businesses across Europe, some of which we have already instigated.
Armed with the Propel Info list as well as Ian Neill’s “Must See Top Five” I visited and sampled food and drink in 32 venues in three days, took 150 photos and gathered immeasurable inspiration. Reflecting back a week later my abiding thoughts are:
Nothing beats the UK hospitality sector
UK hospitality is full of fantastic, energetic, passionate and genuinely fun people! Is there any other career path that offers such warmth and energy?
The ALMR is in safe hands with David McHattie, a genuine operator and top bloke who can confidently build on the fantastic foundations Nick Bish and his team have laid over the past two decades.
The UK and its best operators, most of whom are ALMR members, are no longer years behind the USA – in fact I think we have many superior offerings. Whilst I visited lots of operations that were very impressive there were only two which genuinely left me thinking “that is so clever and I’ve never seen it before”. Both of these were operated by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, innovators and executors of the highest level. Check out foodlifechicago.com
Average customer care higher
I experienced some truly outstanding customer service with passion, knowledge and selling techniques of the very highest standard. The average customer care received was, in general, higher than that we experience in Blighty. I also witnessed some of the worst attitudes you’d care for. Just goes to show there are exceptions to every rule.
The managers we engaged with were all without exception professional, knowledgeable, articulate, confident about and proud of their businesses and their teams. I cannot substantiate but I hear they are paid extremely well.
To earn tips you have to be great
The amount of general staff in every business was huge and whilst a payroll of 14% to 20% at first sounds like a lean machine when the pay rate is under $3 per hour, it indicates a massive manpower deployment. The guys rely on tips to live, not their base pay, and to earn tips you have to be great. This leads to exceptional service.
Without exception the unit cleanliness standards were very impressive, dirt simply wasn’t evident – a section of the multitudinous team were cleaning all of the time!
Customer was king
In all operations the customer was king; you could sit and eat and drink whatever and wherever you wanted (I applaud Alex at Loungers and Jillian at Drakes for propagating this over here). Solo diners sitting at the bar is a norm. How many of us remove furniture from the bar as it gets in the way of drink sales?
The pace of consumption is slower than here and food is prevalent throughout. Portions are huge but take-home doggy bags are completely acceptable, not a thing of shame. This means people eat out far, far more than in the UK. Maybe this is why we were struck by how few supermarkets and food stores there were in the city; people use licensed retail for food and drink, not the express store.
I never once felt a negative vibe or aggression even in the busiest venues. People just drink less and are more relaxed.
External corporate delivered food trade amounting to 20%
Massive office blocks give a rare population density leading to the opportunity of pursuing a really focused and narrow target market (meatloaf cupcakes, anyone?). Also lots of fast-casuals had external corporate delivered food trade amounting to 20% of venues within an 800m radius.
Craft beer is huge and still growing – the next rising trend is craft and artisan spirits. In ‘Bub City’, the smaller whiskey bar had over 200 separate products.
Chicago is loved
Chicago downtown is undeniably affluent but it is also most definitely loved. The lack of litter and graffiti, together with flowers everywhere, give a tangible feeling of civic and citizen pride. The build quality and money deployed in unit fit-outs was excellent with no evident compromise.
Finally a very powerful message I bought home is that we are doing a lot right. We should be proud about a lot of what we do. I’d happily put a Belushi’s burger or chili cheese dog in a blind tasting against what I had there!
Chicago is definitely ‘my kind of town’ – I urge you to visit.
Eddy Passey is operations director for Beds and Bars