Is Chicago Tougher on Restaurant Imports Than Other Cities?

By Kate MacArthur, May 26, 2012

You hear it every time a restaurant imported from somewhere else closes here: Transplants can’t cut it in Chicago. The recent closings of BLT American Brasserie last month, after only five months in business, and China Grill in January rekindled the argument.

But industry experts say there’s nothing special about Chicago. It’s tough—but not impossible—for a restaurant to set up in any new town. Failures by outsiders simply tend to be magnified.

When 10 local restaurants close, “we just chalk it up to a bad economy, a bad location,” says Phil Mott, assistant professor of hospitality management at Kendall College in Chicago. “On the other hand, if somebody from out of town closes, it’s because they’re from out of town. It’s hard to open a restaurant anywhere, much less take it on the road.”

Chicago is no more parochial than any other city when it comes to restaurants, says H.G. Parsa, professor of hospitality at Central Florida University in Orlando, who has studied restaurant failures. “I would totally disagree that Chicago is hard. Chicago is different,” he says. If a restaurant can provide the food that Chicagoans want, it “can make it. But don’t force your New York and L.A. habits on Chicago.”

All discussion of Chicago’s chilly attitude to transplants goes back to Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Chicago, which closed in 2003 after seven years.

As recently as October, the Gourmet Live blog named it the biggest celebrity chef restaurant flop. The author mused whether the city “proved too tough a nut to crack” and whether Los Angeles-based Spago’s vegetable-driven menu was “too delicate” for Chicagoans’ hearty appetites. Others blamed Mr. Puck’s rare visits to the outpost. Former General Manager Amanda Puck (Mr. Puck’s former sister-in-law) declines to comment.

By contrast, Roy Yamaguchi’s namesake Hawaiian fusion restaurant has endured for a decade in River North with little presence by the Iron Chef. New York-based French Vietnamese fine-dining house Le Colonial has lasted for 16 years in the Gold Coast. The typical fine-dining restaurant lasts 10 to 15 years, according to Mr. Parsa.

With its ever-improving restaurant reputation, Chicago issues a siren call to outsiders hungry to expand. Roka Akor landed here last year from London and is one of Crain’s picks for best new restaurants. New York’s Magnolia Bakery in the Block 37 Shops is regularly packed. New York celebrity chef Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich are scouting for a Chicago version of their Eataly restaurant and market.

Restaurateurs and experts say the key to success is hiring a manager or chef who is known to the customer base and who understands the regional palate and customs.

“You’ve got to do research on where to locate, who’s your competition, what are the local preferences from consumers and what are the local flavor trends,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based restaurant consultant Technomic Inc. Understanding and appealing to the natives will help get around Chicagoan’s “second city” complex, says Chuck Hamburg, partner at Chicago-based restaurant consultant Creative Hospitality Associates and an associate professor of hospitality at Roosevelt University.

He praises Ian Schrager for tapping Chicago-based Rockit Ranch Productions Inc. to consult on the Pump Room Bar, which reopened at Mr. Schrager’s Public Hotel Chicago in October.

“He didn’t try to come in as ‘I’m the great Ian Schrager from Studio 54,’ “ Mr. Hamburg says. “He ingratiated himself with the city.”

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