Chicago – a reminder of the infinite possibilities within foodservice

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You can pack an awful lot into three full days and four nights in Chicago – and we did, writes Paul Charity.  This visit, we and the ALMR were determined to see as much as possible by way of emerging concepts in this buzzing city.

Our party visited well over 30 different full-service and fast casual brands, hiring a coach to undertake 12 hours of intensive touring around the city and its suburbs whilst roaming bars and brew-pubs in the evenings. Twice we treated ourselves to a Chicago fine-dining experience.

Unique willingness to share information

And then there was the National Restaurant Association (NRA) show itself, which is on a mind-boggling scale attracting 55,000 visitors each year. We raided our contacts book and pulled in favours to have chief executives, founders and senior managers on hand to explain concepts to our delegates. At other places, managers and staff happily went out of their way to answer questions, always in an open and friendly manner. It was a reminder that our industry is unique in its willingness to share information, even with complete strangers.

You come back from a trip like this with your pencil well and truly sharpened, armed with a renewed sense of the infinite possibilities in foodservice. Four decades of industry development in the US has created a massive pool of experienced and talented foodservice professionals. We saw many concepts that had stimulating, even inspirational, approaches to the marketplace. Here is a list of some of the ones I found particularly interesting.

Hash House A Go Go

This concept serves traditional Midwest comfort food in a modern setting that references farming communities and culture. Menu items are served in almost obscenely large portions, with as many as four menu changes a day. A key point-of-difference is the striking originality in terms of presentation both in food and drink. Every single item we saw had undergone careful thought in terms on how a wow factor could be created. The food may be absolutely mainstream but it made you wonder why so much pub food, in particular, in the UK is served in almost identical fashion. There’s also plenty of merchandise on sale, with T-shirts that change when the menu changes to make them collectible.


Owner TJ Callaghan, who used to work for research powerhouse Technomic, spent an hour with us and his passion and drive were palpable. Farmhouse taps into the fast-expanding demand for craft beer and craft spirits, with a strong cider offer as well. Callaghan now owns his own farm to supply the restaurant and food is sourced from small-batch suppliers in the locality. Décor is homely and stripped back, food and drink is the antithesis of mass-produced. This first site, trading from less than 2,000 square feet, doubled turnover forecasts with an annual take well in excess of $2m. Rent is a paltry 5% of turnover. A second site will open next month. Again, we struck lucky – TJ Callaghan, it turned out, was a star speaker at the NRA show, talking about beverage trends in the US.

Corner House Bakery

In the booming café bakery segment, Corner House was acquired by Mike Hislop from Brinker around six years ago. Since then it has added around 100 sites, with three opening in the week before we arrived. Hislop was on hand, courtesy of a deft pre-warning from Technomic’s director of research Kevin Higar, to explain the main drivers behind the brand – fresh bread, pastries, paninis and the occasional pasta dish. Catering to offices close to sites accounts for an astonishing 20% of overall business, which totals north of $2m per annum per site. On hand was UK café bakery owner Luke Johnson to compare notes with Hislop on this fast-growing part of the market. Generously, Hislop asked his staff to cook-off large parts of Corner House Bakery’s menu for us to try.

Argo Tea

Chicago is home to the world’s largest specialist tea-shop chain, Argo, which now has 26 sites. Argo offers a wide and varied choice of speciality teas, with a booming sideline in prepared teas that were launched in Wholefoods and other chains 18 months ago. This business is going “like a rocket”, vice president of national sales Pete Popovich told us. It has a site at Chicago airport and hardly a day goes by without an email to Popovich from somewhere in the world asking to franchise the brand. If you thought tea was a ‘limited’ beverage, not suited to the variations that coffee offers, think again. Popovich asked staff to prepare us a tasting range – and the flavour range was wonderfully wide.


Joe Lewis’s upmarket Chicago fine-dining restaurant is built on a scale over three floors, with a stunning roof-top bar. Chief marketing officer Jeff Carl was on hand to give our delegates a tour of the restaurant. Centrepiece is a huge self-service buffet which is the prelude to the arrival of chefs at your table to carve skewers of beef, chicken, salmon, swordfish, sausage on to your plate. Lewis’s US business Tavistock Restaurants combines fine-dining restaurants like ZED451 with the fast-growing Freebird World Burrito concept, which is due to open its 100th site in August.

This list barely scratches the surface and I will return to theme of US foodservice in the forthcoming Propel Quarterly magazine. Spaces on our annual trip to the US are limited for logistical reasons. It’s hard work cementing all the moving parts when your party gets too big and we closed the trip to bookings back in January. If you’d like to express a preliminary interest in grabbing a place on the next Propel Info and ALMR trip to the US in May 2014, email me on

Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info. He is pictured above right.


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