Rich Melman casts a giant shadow in awesome Chicago says Chris Gerard

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The centre of Chicago is one of the most astonishing and architecturally stimulating city street and skyscapes in the world.

The river Michigan winds past huge mirrored skyscrapers, each one built with more than a nod of homage to its predecessors crazy aspirations. Some buildings literally reflect each other, whilst some echo each others architecture, but each add their own twists to past experimentation and continue to move and shape the city further.

Testament to human creativity

Downtown Chicago is a powerful testament to human creativity and ambition and it is much-loved and admired by its inheritors.

The city today is vibrant, clean, energetic and a joy to walk in. The city’s approach to its architecture has been applied to its food and drink businesses with enormous pride, success and, for nearly as long.

This experimentation, creativity and energy has consistently delivered world class and innovative restaurants and bars, and at least for thirty years.

The Chicago restaurant business has been much helped by the fact that its people live in their city properly – they live and work in the same place!

You eat out

The 2008 recession may have stalled the construction of the tallest building yet approved in Chicago, but the need to keep your job has driven an even greater work ethic, (for those remaining in work). This has meant that you work 8am to 8pm, there is no time to shop or cook – you eat out.

In most European city’s you find, where people live in large numbers, supermarkets; in the centre of Chicago you find restaurants!

Rich Melman has been creating extraordinary restaurants for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, virtually all his life, and the thing is, at 72, he still is.

New technology to allow our guests to put themselves on our wait lists

Chicago was created as a transport hub in the 19th Century, it delivered all of Americas dreams in the 20th Century, with some of the largest and most successful catalogue companies in the world, requiring the building of one million square feet of post office!

Today in the 21st Century it hosts the huge National Restaurant Association exhibition and over four days attracts restaurateurs from all over the world to think, eat and play.

Hosted by Propel and the ALMR, I had the privilege of joining 42 other operators to visit Chicago. I am, as you may gather, pretty wowed by the city – awesome is genuinely an appropriate word.

So what was my take out from the exhibition and more importantly Chicago? We should not take reservations when demand exceeds supply. We should find new technology to allow our guests to put themselves on our wait lists before they arrive and know when they should arrive.

Don’t rub the guest’s nose in the “it’s good for you” bit!

Too much focus can be a bad thing. Eataly offers one of the most amazing food offers I have ever seen under one owner’s roof . But the development of a raft of specialised focused offers can reduce choice, not increase it for groups of guests with varying tastes.

BBQ and slow cooking is old-hat but my goodness it’s a good old hat, and it remains very popular. The Weber Grill, now looking a bit tired, created in 2002, is showing the Eataly business just how to make money!

“Good for you foods” can be delicious and are an emerging trend, see Beatrix or Lyfe Kitchen, but importantly they don’t rub the guest’s nose in the “it’s good for you” bit!

Brought to market through social media

Passion for your product is a critical element to deliver success, but passion can’t beat the reality of a -30 degree centigrade winter or a poor location/plan. Last winter was tough in Chicago.

Hot dogs, food vans, and food innovation all can now be brought to market through social media.

For those that presently deliver their food with an in-house resource – get together with your competitors and build a shared city-wide delivery solution.

Craft beer is everywhere in Chicago with very few brewers fonts to be seen. At the exhibition, a brew-it-yourself retail solution is available at circa $60,000 and it is deskilled, making the brew house a mainstream possibility. $1.00 a litre brewed out, with a 500 litre brew.

For build-your-own quick service pizza with loads of energy and style, see Blaze Pizza.

But finally back to the big lesson, Rich Melman. He is 72 and still building sites and has been in his new business, Beatrix, nearly every day since it opened a year ago. He rings the Beatrix in the morning for sales numbers and to understand how his new key dishes are selling.

He is still showing all of us the virtue of passion and that retail is still detail.

Chris Gerard is the founder of award-wining pub and restaurant business Innventure, is undertaking partnership work with Charles Wells at d’Pary’s in Bedford and formerly ran Vintage Inns at Mitchells & Butlers


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