After Blackbird: Restaurateur Donnie Madia Says “We’re in a Different World” (Fall Arts Preview 2021)

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Donnie Madia / Photo: Brian Willette

Over the past couple of years, there have been times when each of us felt stunned by the realization that the pandemic was going to change our lives. For some, this may have been the time we learned that a friend or family member had fallen ill, or when our employer said we wouldn’t need us at the office until further. order. For me, it was when I heard that Blackbird was shutting down. Blackbird was at the forefront of Chicago restaurants that started talking about our city as a culinary destination. Anthony Bourdain visited Blackbird to eat and hang out with Chef Paul Kahan during one of the first episodes of “No Reservations,” and just walking through the door during those early days, you couldn’t help but feel this place was a harbinger of greater things to come and dine in Chicago. When it closed it was like we were losing more than just a restaurant.

Donnie Madia is a partner and one of the very recognizable faces of One Off Hospitality, the restaurant group that has won nine James Beard awards, including Outstanding Chef and Best Chef Great Lakes for Kahan and several for Outstanding Restaurant Design. Madia himself received his Beard Award for best restaurateur.

In addition to Blackbird, One Off Hospitality brought other revolutionary restaurants and bars to Chicago, most notably the thriving with, along with River North, The Publican, The Violet Hour and Big Star.

Madia and I met in the dining room with River North, which opened earlier this year in the space previously occupied by its Pacific Standard Time, which closed during the height of the pandemic. I wanted to know what transformations, apart from the closures, were made to One Off Hospitality by the health disaster. Common themes emerged in communication as well as a new sense of community among restaurateurs in Chicago and across the country during our shared national trauma.

Getting politicians to listen

At the start of the pandemic, Madia recalls, “Everyone was going into survival mode. On the first day we had maybe twenty people on the phone, Tom Colicchio, Andrew Zimmern and others, and that day we found some money to hire a lobbyist, who is still with us. The common thread throughout this pandemic has been: “How are our independent restaurants going to survive and persevere? We continued to work on the phone, to work on our political friendships, and for the first time we had the courage to negotiate and put a lobbyist on our side and work with us. Having a lobbyist has also helped the Illinois Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association, as now everyone is covered, from the smallest family-run restaurant in the 49th and Pulaski to leading restaurant groups across the country. Within about eight months, the initial members of the Coalition of independent restaurants went in front of the president and sat down with him to tell him what the restaurants needed. We were able to shape the PPP and explained that we needed a stable stimulus fund to get through this pandemic. Politicians now had an idea of ​​what restaurants were going through, how under the name of a famous chef there could be a hundred employees, and these people had families, so there could be 500 people related to this one restaurant. Now that they are informed, they realize that restaurants are the largest private sector business in the country.

Develop new sources of income

Communication between restaurateurs and with elected officials has improved since the pandemic hit, but there have been smaller, logistical and operational changes that have transformed the business of One Off Hospitality.

Publican Quality Bread is a subscription service for exceptional bakery products produced by Chef Baker Greg Wade (who has been recognized as James Beard, Outstanding Baker). Delivering quality publican bread to the lower 48 states is becoming a reality, and One Off at Home makes it possible to enjoy food from their restaurants, delivered to your doorstep. There are a range of delivery packages to choose from, including Kahan’s Perfect Publican Meal Kit (pork and duck rillettes, a free range chicken marinated with potatoes and summer sausage, dessert); with, Medjool dates stuffed with chorizo ​​(if you’ve gone with, you’ve already eaten); from The Violet Hour, a box of “home bar essentials”. All of their packages, spawned in the wake of the pandemic, deliver restaurant-quality food and drink to people who hadn’t entered a restaurant in months.

“Our cocktail subscription series,” says Madia, “has been very successful. This program is a direct result of the pandemic and has helped propel The Violet Hour through the most difficult times of the pandemic. And even though Blackbird, which was the foundation and cornerstone of the entire group, was a victim of the pandemic, the old Blackbird space is being used for One Off at Home, so it has also become a positive. . “

One of the reasons Blackbird closed early in the pandemic was because it was simply too small to allow six feet of social distance between tables. Having everyone so dispersed didn’t work; as Madia recalls, “There was room for ten people in the dining room. Where’s the energy, where’s the vibe? Lunch was always so vibrant and complete. I was married in the aisle between Blackbird and with, and the celebration was inside Blackbird. Julia Child dined there in 2002 during the housewares show. There are beautiful memories there.

I hear Madia’s voice crack, just a little, when he says, “There are fond memories of Blackbird, but you know, at the end of the day, maybe we sacrificed this restaurant so that other restaurants can continue and prosper. Blackbird was close and dear to us and to the hundreds of staff we have employed over the course of twenty-two years.

Adapt to a changing business environment

For many restaurants, one of the outcomes of the pandemic has been the reduction of menu offerings to minimize waste and focus on foods that are most popular or have the best profit margins.

I ask Madia if he has felt the need to reduce the size of the menu and the types of dishes they offer to streamline the food preparation process and become more efficient. His answer was clear: “No. In fact, with has a bigger menu than before. And we’re not going to use QR codes either: nobody wants to use QR codes to read the menu. Our menus revert to paper menus, not laminated; if they are soiled, they are thrown away.

Disposable menus may be a small thing, but it’s part of the larger effort to keep guests and staff safe. “Helping people feel safe is our job,” says Madia, and that’s why he wears a mask every time he’s in one of his restaurants; he wants to lead by example. “Our job,” he believes, “is to make people feel safe. In the summer of 2020, before the vaccinations, I made sure to measure each table six feet from any other table. My job is to take care of people. There is no CEO mindset here, there is only one mindset and that is to be welcoming and to take care of people, our customers and the community.

Big Star Patio / Photo: One Off Hospitality

A new sense of community

“There is a feeling among chefs and restaurateurs”, says Madia, “that we must continue, we must persevere, we must think of our suppliers, farmers, fishermen, carpenters, architects, all those who are involved in the process. making a restaurant. And you have to think about what these people go through if a restaurant doesn’t, if it doesn’t survive. The ripple effect is immense, and I’m just glad we had the courage to engage Congress and the Fed to help us. It’s up to them now. We need an additional $ 65 billion to top up the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, as many restaurants need this funding and won’t. ‘haven’t got it yet.

“One of my goals,” explains Madia, “is to park a ‘vaccination bus’ in front of our restaurants and to offer vaccines to our customers, but also to members of the community. Anyone who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated. Scott Weiner does this in West Town Bakery, and I would love to do it in our restaurants. We want our staff to get vaccinated, but we also want to make the vaccines available to the community. We have also created vaccination buttons to help with this effort, and we have made it clear to our guests that we will all be wearing masks because we want everyone to be safe.

“Based on my involvement with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, I tried to get in touch with others in the restaurant industry, perhaps small restaurateurs who were not involved in the IRC, and I found that restaurants need to be involved in the larger community, nationwide, not just their local neighborhoods, and that we need to support each other. There has always been competition between, for example, the Boka Group and One Off Hospitality. The pandemic has forced us to leave it all behind. Now we speak and work together for the good of the entire restaurant community. We share information, and that didn’t always happen before the pandemic. In the past, we could have kept information to ourselves and executed it ourselves. Now we are sharing new information, calling others in the industry and educating them. Because of this pandemic, we talk more together and we work more together. “

One point that always came to the fore in Madia’s words was the need for communication, giving serious thought to how others are affected by the pandemic. In response to the larger question: “How has your business transformed? Madia has only one word: “Empathy. Our business has been transformed through empathy, understanding what people are going through right now, and understanding that we, the restaurateurs, staff and the community at large, are in a different world.


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