This fall, WBEZ is bringing you a series of stories about favorite fall eats and seasonal delicacies on a budget.
By day, Sheal Patel is the chief financial officer at kitchen storage company YouCopia. After hours, he imbues barbecue with Indian flavors, smoking enough tandoori-style ribs and korma-rubbed chicken for 100 people at a time as the chef behind Dhuaan BBQ Company.
Patel dreams about someday opening a full-service Indian barbecue restaurant. But he isn’t sure he can make a living in a small storefront unless he “pumps out high-margin cocktails,” given that the price of food remains comparatively stagnant.
So for now, he schleps his expertly smoked meats in crock pots to sellout collaboration events at bars like Ludlow Liquors, Solemn Oath Brewery and — more regularly — Hopewell Brewing Co., and pours every penny of his modest profits back into the next event.
“It just feels like the world is morphing so quickly in front of our eyes,” said Patel. “I’m not trying to be part of this great experiment right now.”
Fortunately for Patel, Chicago has built a thriving pop-up restaurant culture over the past decade — the byproduct mostly of the city’s onerous food truck laws. For the chefs behind pop-ups, a brick-and-mortar restaurant used to be the eventual goal. That’s changing fast because of exorbitant (and rising) fixed costs, ongoing worker shortages and the physical and mental toll of running restaurants.
Now some pop-up owners in Chicago are choosing to permanently live the nomadic life, opting for roving collaborations, restaurant and bar residencies, catering and wholesale production. Other chefs are sitting on the fence a little longer, and seeing if a fast shifting industry settles.
In the meantime, Chicagoans are gaining regular, fairly inexpensive access to some of the city’s most dynamic and creative cooking — from Midwestern potato casseroles imbued with kimchi and black pepper bechamel to corn and shishito cream pizza by the slice. Diners just have to find it.
Pandemic pop-ups hold out for longer
Patel understands finance, and restaurant industry finance is, at best, in flux right now. He cites two pressures on a list of many. One is the city’s recent decision to phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers, which will level the economic playing field for hourly workers with higher labor costs for owners.
The other is the growing number of private equity firms investing in restaurants. It’s appealing for startups in need of cash, for sure, until you weigh the loss of autonomy. Is it better, Patel wonders, to fork over rent and commission fees but save on waitstaff by opening a delivery-only ghost kitchen?
“I’m sympathetic to anyone trying to open a restaurant right now; it’s not easy,” he said.
Virtual Midwestern folk restaurant Funeral Potatoes exploded out the gate as an online meal delivery service because it tapped into people’s hankering for compelling comfort meal deliveries during the COVID-19 lockdown. But with the pandemic abating and people venturing out again, deliveries have dropped. That leaves owners and executive chefs Alexis Thomas-Rice and Eve Studnicka again pondering their future and fundraising for a brick-and-mortar space while catering more in-person events. (They’ve raised $15,000 out of their $60,000 GoFundMe goal.)
“Every year the business kind of changes into something a little different,” Studnicka said. She and Thomas-Rice were speaking from their delivery van, where they spend hours each Thursday driving from Hyde Park to Evanston dispensing the chilled and frozen comforts they prepare on Wednesdays with three part-time employees.
“What we are currently realizing is that we’ve taken on a lot of corporate catering gigs that pay the bills and are financially a good decision, but if we don’t do more events that feel aligned with our personalities and interests, it can be a little soul sucking,” Studnicka added.
Freedom to take more creative risks
Not having a physical restaurant can offer the freedom to stay truer to one’s creative spirit — and the ability to try, fail and evolve quickly. Mobile raw bar Motorshucker does a little of everything to find dependable income while holding true to the four partners’ passions: residencies featuring their fun-loving seafood and fancy bar snacks at Easy Does it and Sportsman’s Club; catered events as large as the Pitchfork Music Festival; production of wholesale Laotian-spiced packaged bar nuts; and freelance oyster shucking.
Co-founder Mico Hillyard and his three partners — co-founder Kat Dennis, Cub Dimling and Jamie Davis — all previously worked in hospitality and have thus formed deep industry connections. Private catered events and residencies at friends’ bars allow them to “take a little more creative risk” as they contemplate potential avenues for a lasting business, Hillyard said.
A current month-long collaboration at The Bamboo Room in River North pairs seafood small plates with cocktails. One marriage: pickled clams with uni custard sauce and oysters under parsley gelee and banana ice coupled with a nautically inspired rum concoction from the bar. Other times, they’ll lend their mad shucking skills to places like Queen Mary in Wicker Park, which was recently in need of quick hands for $1 oyster happy hour. “There are establishments around the city that are extremely skilled and focused at the beverage side, and sometimes they don’t have the bandwidth to necessarily focus that much on food,” Dimling added.
Billy Zureikat knows all about the power of community. The chef behind the popular Tripping Billy pop-up series has spent the past two years leveraging the social platforms of beloved Chicago restaurants like J.P. Graziano and Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Zureikat was diagnosed with limb girdle muscular dystrophy in March 2021, a condition that causes the muscles in the lower limbs to deteriorate without treatment, cure or timetable. He turned to cooking and savory baking as a salve, and popped up at Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square with his original creation — a Detroit-style “Tripping Billy” pie with shishito cream and sweet corn. Its popularity inspired Zureikat to launch a collaboration series featuring his clever pizza and sandwich creations at restaurants around the city. He’s since raised almost $45,000 for the MDA.
For Zureikat, who has issues with balance, working in a professional kitchen can be difficult. He walks around guarded, almost robot-like, to keep his balance on the slick floors. “I can make a few pizzas at home. Doing 50 for a pop-up, it’s a whole different beast. The next day I feel like I played football for two hours. I’m just exhausted.”
Working on his own terms in a pop-up has allowed him to build confidence in his own cooking and grow Tripping Billy into a valuable brand. He amassed his own, significant social media following and secured an ambassadorship with Gozney pizza ovens and a cooking series on live-streaming channel Kittch. He’s contemplating a future in food media as a cooking show host and cookbook author, while still working full time at a logistics company.
“I’m throwing a lot of stuff out there with my own money, seeing what I can do; it’s almost like an internship,” he said. “I’m not expecting this to happen overnight.”
A different end goal
In some ways, finding success outside the traditional restaurant construct, with its demanding hours and razor-thin margins, has made pop-up owners feel less beholden to a fixed ideal.
“It feels like for us now instead of having an ending point, the goal feels like continuing to grow and expand and find ways to express our skills and knowledge,” said Davis of Motorshucker.
For Studnicka and Thomas-Rice, the pop-up phase has brought long van rides — and meaningful conversations about mental health. Studnicka has been particularly vocal about concerns over jeopardizing her love of cooking and their friendship. Communicating openly and often about it has helped the duo find a comfortable rhythm as their business grows. If one is feeling the tinge of burnout come on, the other will take the lead and ask a part-timer to step up the following week.
Like countless before them, the two are feeling the magnetic, even emotional, pull to open a place with a permanent address and sign above the door, where customers become regulars. They have so far pinned more than 350 images of their dream cafe’s aesthetic to a Pinterest board, from a scallop-edged wood breakfast nook to shell pendant lights, prints of cowboy cats and gay cats, and retro plush couches spanning a veritable rainbow of ’70s color palettes.
They don’t see their cafe, with its cool grandma aesthetic, as just a place to eat caramelized onion mac and cheese but a community anchor for those in need of comfort and belonging.
“It’s that warmth and deep feeling — I always describe it as feeling tethered,” Thomas-Rice said. “Nothing makes me feel more tethered than cooking the food my great-grandma cooked for us. That’s what we want this restaurant to be: a family tether through food that a lot of people didn’t get to experience growing up trans or queer. That’s probably the biggest motivator beyond wanting more control of our finances.”
They were gearing up for their first semi-serious retail walkthroughs a few days after the interview, but they were in no big hurry.
“It’s nice to not feel a sense of urgency,” Studnicka said. “We don’t need to do this to survive, or fulfill a dream of success. We’re pretty satisfied with where we’re at.”
Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based food and drink writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. Follow her on Instagram.