By Sarah Louise Klose
Ellen Haran has a smoking habit. And she doesn’t plan to quit.
Haran has always dreamed of ribs, brisket and chicken, slow-cooked in a cavernous smoker. She imagined spice-rubbed delicacies served in her own restaurant—a comfortable place where neighbors would feel like family. When her commercial real estate career went bust, Haran saw it as an opportunity to make it happen. She leased a Lincoln Park storefront, never imagining how challenging it would be to bring her vision to life. “I’m going from real estate to restaurants—the worst of two evils,” Haran says. “Every morning I put on my boxing gloves and say, ‘Who’s it going to be today?’ ”
In Spring 2010, I learn that Haran, a fellow church member, plans to open a restaurant called El’s Kitchen. Haran is warm and friendly, but she strikes me as the kind of person who doesn’t take any crap. A throwback to the thirties, Haran is a blonde bombshell, tough as her red toenails. By the time I hear about her plans, she is already deep into the project, although her doors are still far from opening.
A year before, Haran locked in a business plan, written by Kim Shambrook, owner of the high-end catering company Bespoke Cuisine. When Haran spied a vacant storefront at 1450 West Webster Place, next to Starbucks and across from the Regal Webster Place movie theater, she knew it could become El’s Kitchen. She envisioned her restaurant in the triangle-shaped space on the first floor. In the empty condo above, she could strategize, interview candidates and train staff. She could hold tastings upstairs while the restaurant was being built downstairs.
In January 2010, Haran assembled her management team. The key player in her team was lawyer Ron McDermott, a real estate attorney at Shefsky & Froelich. McDermott knows how the permit, zoning and inspection systems work—he’s held City of Chicago positions as assistant commissioner, first in the Building Department, then in the Department of Planning and Development. Haran retained a general manager, Mark Cymerman, from the restaurant consulting company Dine In Support. She hired a graphic artist to design her logo. She hired a marketing consultant to create her website. Not a professional cook herself, Haran hired a chef. One final member of the team, the star of the show, is the $25,000 Ole Hickory Pits smoker. Ribs take four hours to slow-cook in the smoker; brisket, fourteen. Cymerman christened it “the Cadillac of smokers.”
The lease for the two-story space begins February 1, 2010. Three weeks later, the bright orange liquor-license application goes up in her window. In the meantime, Haran has to renovate the space—she wants to make it more open, add a custom bar, and put in the city code’s required four sinks—bar, kitchen and basement for handwashing and dishwashing. She wants a fifth sink for washing vegetables. She meets with architects and construction managers, but they say the pillars are load-bearing, and can’t be moved. They ask about the planned dimensions of the custom-built bar. On April 2, McDermott helps secure a building permit.
I visit in mid-May, and the construction crew is hard at work. In the combined condo/office/kitchen above what will be the dining area, the chef’s tasting begins. The opening date is just weeks away. Flatbread wedges surround a large bowl of mesclun greens, roma tomatoes and red onions. “I want to add celery and a carrot, like Leona’s,” Haran says. “And forget the pepperoncini—no one expects pepperoncini on a salad. Maybe add smoked olives.”
The chef presents an odd-shaped hunk of iceberg lettuce. Three strips of bacon enrobe cherry tomatoes and blue cheese dressing. “I’d use maybe one-and-a-half slices of bacon, crumbled,” Cymerman says.
“And cut it into more of a wedge,” Haran says.
The peppercorn ranch dressing passes the taste test. A homemade sauce does not. “Whoa!” Haran exclaims. “I’m not a wuss, but that is really spicy.”
“But I left the jalapeños out,” the chef says. “Should I eighty-six the rum? Eighty-six the red chili flakes?”
At the second tasting, Haran complains the spinach-artichoke dip is “too salty, too watery; you can’t taste the spinach.” Cymerman says the veggie burger—sliced zucchinis and squash on white bean spread—“needs a patty so I feel I’m getting my money’s worth.”
Four days later, Haran and Cymerman tell the chef he hasn’t made the cut. “I don’t think he was that surprised.” Cymerman says. “I mean, you were at the tasting.”
Haran admits she made her decision at the first tasting—the iceberg lettuce sunk the chef.
In a panic, Haran calls catering consultant Shambrook, who zips to Lincoln Park from the West Loop. “What you have here is a triage situation,” Shambrook says. “You need to find a new chef, a rising star, immediately. Someone ready to make their mark.” She recommends Haran request an immediate tasting from each new chef candidate. “If you tell him to make corn pudding, he should be able to do that, no questions asked,” Shambrook says. “It’s an easy, basic dish. Are you hard and fast on opening in one week? Because I think that’s a little ambitious.”
El’s Kitchen postpones their opening to mid-June. Shambrook will secure a chef, concoct the sauces and create the rubs. Cymerman will hire and train staff, manage product purchases, and select the POS technology which sets prices and determines profit margins.
“How about a pared-down menu?” Shambrook says.
Haran’s face falls like an overcooked souffle. “I don’t want corn chips, Gonnella bread,” Haran says. “I really don’t. But I’d be willing to do a limited menu just to open. Maybe three appetizers, three salads, three sandwiches and four entrees.”
El’s Kitchen plans to open thirty-eight outdoor seats to complement the restaurant’s sixty-six-seat indoor dining room. 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack’s office says the restaurant needs clearance of one foot from the curb and six feet from the wall, plus greenery covering fifty percent of a perimeter railing. Staffers inspect the property and say she’s good. To apply to the city for their sidewalk cafe, El’s Kitchen files a detailed drawing and completed application. They include the required $600 fee and proof of insurance. The Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce supports the plan, but the Sheffield Neighborhood Association (SNA) opposes it. Waguespack instructs Haran to meet with the SNA.
“I’ve never heard of an alderman doing this—making a business go to the community and discuss a sidewalk cafe with them,” McDermott says.
Haran walks into the meeting cold, and the SNA beats her up. “She came with nothing; it was not a good first impression,” says Patty Hayes, the SNA Neighborhood Relations Chairman.
I’m not at the meeting, so I can’t say. But later, I get an earful from both sides. I write a story for the local neighborhood paper, the Inside-Booster. They run it with the headline “El No!”
Following the meeting, the SNA requests more and more information. Haran is getting peeved. She supplies her blueprint. Her business plan. Her menu. Her garbage pickup plan. “They said I’m a nuisance,” Haran says. “Who am I a nuisance to?”
It turns out McDermott, with his years of experience with Chicago bureaucracy, has an answer. “What I’m deducing is that the SNA didn’t know about the liquor license,” he says. Somehow, they had missed the orange notice in the restaurant window, the publication notice in the paper and the posting on the city’s website.
Hayes acknowledges the SNA didn’t see the liquor-license application and missed the forty-five-day objection period. She denies this is the reason for their concerns about the sidewalk cafe. “We’re just kind of a watchdog here,” Hayes says. “No restaurant will open and be flawless.”
There are issues indoors too. The smoker was installed in the basement, below the restaurant dining room. Haran had to cut a hole in the floor to lower it in. Now, city inspectors say El’s Kitchen must install an exhaust hood from the dining room level to the outside. If they don’t, they can’t operate their smoker. Haran powwows with her construction manager. He arranges to have the pieces specially fabricated. Another delay. In the meantime, they make a decision about the wood for the smoker. Cymerman argues that oak doesn’t really impart any flavor, but Haran is firm: no hickory. They go with half oak, half apple.
Haran and Cymerman work on lining up vendors. “We picked Coke as the soft drink vendor,” Cymerman says. “So we set the install date. The product comes that day, and all the prices are wrong. The rep says he’s only been there two months. I call the VP—it takes another two days for the installer to come. They come, and they don’t like our cooler. So I have to order a new cooler (which Coke will eventually pay for). The rep says, ‘Don’t worry about it. Pay now at full price, and we’ll give you the (money) back later.’”
“I said, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” Haran says. “If they don’t show up on Tuesday, we’re going with Pepsi.”
Wirtz Beverage, a liquor supplier that carries more than 5,000 different wines, arrives to pitch their product line. Haran tells representative James Wirtz she wants boutiquey wines, not ones you can find at Jewel/Osco. “We have a sparkling wine from Argentina that’s really nice,” Wirtz says. “For Riesling, I’d do one from California, one from New Zealand because they have all the sweeter flavors. I’m not a big fan of Shiraz—I think they’ve seen their day. I have a nice Malbec from Spain. Flavored vodkas are big now…”
Haran’s cousin Joe comes by that day too, for the beer tasting. He tended bar at a private club in Santa Fe for eleven years, and Haran taps him for feedback. Cymerman lines up a selection of bottled beers—Shock Top, Goose Island, Warsteiner, Brooklyn Lager, Trumer Pils and Duvel. One of Joe’s favorites is Goose Island’s Sofie, a Belgian style ale with a high alcohol content.
“I’d have to ask nine dollars a bottle for Sofie or Duvel,” Cymerman says. “Do you think anyone would buy it?”
“You might just want to have a case or two on hand,” Joe says before heading off to fly back out West.
By the end of May, Haran thinks she’s finally found a talented chef. But she wants to be sure the rising star understands it’s El’s Kitchen, not his. She wants the focus to be on the spice combination that coats her ribs, fries, meats. “It’s all about the rub,” she says.
June 4 is training day. The restaurant is casual to upscale, but the servers must look professional. No tattoos, nose rings, piercings. Haran and Cymerman seemed to have missed the tattoo hiding beneath one waitress’ long hair. The girl is Haran’s niece, but the other employees don’t know it. Haran says she’s not a fan of nepotism, and doesn’t like the pressure to hire family members.
“I told her my butt is on the line,” Haran later says. “If she doesn’t work out, I’ll cut her loose.”
Still, the tattoo goes unnoticed.
Cymerman flips through a packet of printed training material. Four waiters and waitresses perch at attention on barstools.
“You need to card everyone. It’s supposed to be two IDs. The city will be sending their spies,” Haran says.
“Service, service, service, that will be key,” Cymerman says.
“Don’t fight with the chef. Come and get me.”
“If something’s not going well, tell us.”
“And if they ask, ‘Can I get fries without seasoning?’ the answer is, ‘Absolutely.’”
“All the food needs to come out together.”
“Unless there are kids—then ask. And we’ll have triangle crayons for them.”
“They can draw a picture of Ellen.”
The servers chuckle. They learn about the pineapple coleslaw, fried chicken, smoked brisket. El’s Kitchen will have Metropolis coffee and Rishi Organic Artisan Iced Tea. The meat is from Niman Ranch.
“Give parties of one your attention,” Cymerman says. “They’re not the mutants. The hostess should always say ‘How many?’ instead of ‘Just one?’ Serve food from the left, clear dishes from the right. Get to the table within two minutes to see how they like their food. No gum-chewing—ever. No cell phones on the floor—ever. If I catch you texting, it won’t be pretty.”
And servers will never, ever, be asked to gather around a table to sing a birthday song.
El’s Kitchen chooses a payroll company, and hires a dishwasher and line cook. They interview bartenders. A busboy is added: her nephew.
“Every friend and relative has been trying to get their kid hired,” Haran says. “They started calling as soon as they heard I was opening a restaurant. It’s been crazy.”
Turano and Highland Bakery drop off samples of their breads and rolls. Haran signs a contract with Wirtz Beverage for wine and spirits. She and Cymerman discuss where the logo should appear on the menu. She nixed the first graphic artist, wanting something “a little hipper, a little more Ed Hardy.” Now, she’s happy with what the second one gave her: “El’s” in burgundy letters on a green-gold plate with “kitchen” in red letters underneath, surrounded by gold curlicues and topped by a crown. The combination of royal and fanciful suits her.
Construction, health, liquor and fire departments have inspected El’s Kitchen. I’m discouraged from attending any of the inspections. Haran is clearly not comfortable having a reporter sit in while city officials evaluate her restaurant. McDermott doesn’t think it’s a great idea either.
The city returns for a second health inspection. El’s Kitchen passes. The food license can be issued, which means the restaurant can finally open. It normally takes two weeks, but McDermott helps Haran work directly with Consumer Affairs to expedite it.
They hang signs, wash windows, and install a sound system.
On June 17, El’s Kitchen has a soft opening as a BYOB. I stop in for lunch. The niece is my waitress. She does a decent job—but stumbles in describing the rib sauces and iced tea flavors.
Days later, El’s Kitchen gets their liquor license. Haran pushes publicity efforts into high gear, emailing discount coupons and distributing flyers at the movie theater across the street. The restaurant displays specials on their Facebook page and website.
Then, despite the SNA’s concerns, the sidewalk cafe is approved by Waguespack. City Council concurs. The restaurant builds the outdoor seating area to specifications, and the sidewalk cafe opens.
El’s Kitchen has its grand opening on August 19. Friends and family mingle inside, nibbling on barbecued beef, fried chicken, mini-cheesecakes. Wines and polished glasses beckon from the hand-built bar. Flowers adorn the black bar top. The niece with the tattoo is gone.
Waguespack and Kim Schilf, President and CEO of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, make congratulatory speeches. Haran, clad in a little black dress, talks about how this is the culmination of a lifelong dream. She gets misty-eyed and sort of choked up.
Summer segues into fall, and El’s Kitchen changes the decor. There’s a wide-screen TV, and neon signs from beer vendors dot the windows. Paintings of nature scenes accent the restaurant’s red, gold and chocolate walls. A gas fireplace warms things up as the temperature begins to drop outside.
The menu is tweaked too. “We added whole wheat macaroni and cheese with sweet potatoes,” Haran says. “It’s a huge hit.” Brunch is added on Sunday, then on Saturday.
On December 16, Waguespack holds a reelection-campaign fundraiser at El’s Kitchen. I get hit up for the $50 to $200 donation at the door, and explain that I’m attending as a journalist. The campaign manager, Tom Fendley, runs over to be sure I’m legit. He’s already called the Inside-Booster’s publisher to make sure I’m really covering this for a story. A jazz band plays in the background. Tables are stocked with brisket, veggie burgers, sweet potato chips and spice cake. I avoid the food tables since I haven’t paid, but Haran insists I eat. I chat with Waguespack, who leaves early to attend a Christmas party Mayor Daley is giving for the aldermen.
Haran agonizes over whether or not to stay open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. She’d like to take off two precious days in a row. But profitability is a concern. So is keeping an eye on the staff. Haran had to let a member of the waitstaff go, on suspicions of stealing beer. “I was furious, more so because she was drinking and driving. I had taken her under my wing, tried to help her out because she had a baby at home,” Haran says.
She’s gone through nearly half a dozen chefs, with head cooks taking charge in between. She wonders whether she should even have a chef. Haran doesn’t even bother embroidering a new one’s name on an apron anymore. Some are fired, some quit. Few are interested in letting Haran hold the reins, but this is her show—it is El’s Kitchen, after all.
The reviews of the food are mixed—her fried chicken gets plenty of praise, but other dishes are considered to be uneven. Haran is excited to see the Chicago Reader give her a glowing review. She posts it in the window. In their “Best of Brunch 2010” piece, RedEye falls in love with the bacon. “Ultra-thick slices of pork belly are brined in-house before taking a turn in that magical smoker—which, incidentally, is used to smoke everything from olives to salmon to the corn used in the house-made veggie burgers.” But a Yelp reviewer criticizes her whole Thanksgiving turkeys for tasting like bacon, and she is miffed. “Of course the turkeys taste like bacon,” she says. “They’re made in a smoker!”
One winter Sunday, I’m in church, several rows behind Haran, and I see her break down in tears. She’s being comforted by the wife of her general contractor. Should I approach her? I suspect she’s upset about the restaurant, and I’m right.
“I had no idea how hard this was going to be,” Haran later says. “At first, the challenge was to get my doors open. Now it’s to keep my doors open.” As the face of the restaurant, Haran is at El’s Kitchen for twelve hours nearly every day.
I cruise over to El’s Kitchen on Super Bowl Sunday, wondering if she’ll have a crowd around the television watching the game. Haran’s been leasing the space for over a year now, but the dining room is pretty empty. Still, pickup and delivery business is brisk. After watching Christina Aguilera butcher the National Anthem, I dig into some ribs while the Packers battle the Steelers. Fergie kicks it on “Sweet Child of Mine” at the halftime show, and I head home. My plan was to meet the latest chef, hired in late January, but he and the restaurant have already parted ways.
“It was just the usual,” Cymerman says. “He wanted to make ten million changes to the menu. Ellen doesn’t want that.”
Chefs are very temperamental, Haran says. But she’s found a new one, and he started February 11. Whatever regrets she may have, Haran isn’t the type to stew. She’d much rather keep things cooking.