By Lauren Knight
Once gentrification starts, it’s hard to stop. When the shift occurs between small businesses seeking new ground to full-scale land grabs by large companies, how do the little guys prepare for that transition? Take Fulton Market. What was once the bastion of meatpackers has swiftly become one of the hottest dining and drinking destinations in Chicago. As Randolph Street blossomed into “Restaurant Row,” a few pioneers trekked just a few blocks further north to take advantage of empty storefronts and warehouses.
The neighborhood is now Chicago headquarters to Google.
At the corner of Morgan and Fulton Market, an old cold-storage facility is being transformed into a beacon of new development. The 550,000-square-foot building will house other companies as well, such as SRAM International and Sandbox Industries, but Google’s 500 employees will fill the bulk of the updated structure.
One Off Hospitality Group was one of the first to see the potential in the Fulton Market neighborhood; the transformation that has occurred since opening The Publican in 2008 is an affirmation.
“We don’t follow trends—we create them,” says Donnie Madia, partner in One Off Hospitality Group, which handles The Publican and Publican Quality Meats. They had their eye on Fulton Market as early as 1999 with this goal in mind: “How can we be a market maker in this neighborhood?”
Directly across the street from the new Google HQ is La Sirena Clandestina. John Manion, chef-owner, has watched the changes. “When we first opened, we were in the middle of nowhere. There were some days when I literally saw a tumbleweed going down the street,” he says. Since then, he has seen foot traffic make a gain on truck traffic as the area has begun making the transition from industrial to residential.
“Maybe it’s a reaction to Google coming here,” says Manion, “but I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of growth.”
He’s already preparing for the increased volume their new neighbor will bring. Lunch is the main focus. From bringing in new talent to streamlining the cooking process, there’ll need to be tweaks to account for the midday influx. “We’re finding new ways to still have a great product,” says Manion. “But be a lot faster at it.”
Other restaurants are looking to get themselves more in tune with the office workers’ schedule. Bar Takito, just down the block from the Google building, has already considered the changes they’ll need to make in their hours of operation. “More than likely we’ll open Mondays,” says chef-partner David Dworshak. “The kitchen is currently closed from three-to-five o’clock—probably we’ll open on those hours also. We are expecting it to be crazy, honestly.” New staff and increased patio seating are also being considered.
“We’ve already had a few [Google employees] in here, and we’re really eager to make connections with them and treat them well, because we know they are going to be good customers,” says Dworshak.
The growth spurred by Google’s decision to move to Fulton Market will bring a new dynamic to the area. While Madia has in mind some changes that will need to be made at his restaurants specifically, such as accommodations for more lighting and taxi availability, and grab-and-go coffee and pastries at Publican Quality Meats. Madia is also considering the effect on the neighborhood as a whole. He attends neighborhood meetings and follows politics; being a good neighbor is a value he hopes future businesses will share.
“I hope they have a hospitality arm to welcome the guests,” Madia says of restaurants to come. “A chef of high pedigree is not enough.”
Google’s move to Fulton Market and, more generally, the quick growth of the area has its pros and cons for the restaurants that are preparing for the boom. The incoming business can only be good. “[Google will bring] a higher flow of traffic, people with expendable income, and for a restaurant, that’s exactly what you want,” says Dworshak.
Even if the volume exceeds expectations, “we’ll adapt to it,” Manion says. “It can’t be a bad thing for us in terms of business.”
However, the boons of higher volume brought by the Google office also foretell a landscape that’s irrevocably changed. Fulton Market, for all its incredible development, may not always be a home for restaurants like La Sirena Clandestina.
“When we got in over three years ago, it was a very different environment—we would never be able to do this again,” says Manion. “When our lease is up, I would imagine that there is no way this kind of business will be able to support what’s going on here.”