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GM Laura Payne Dishes On The Purple Pig

This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.

Laura Payne [Photo: Isabelli Media Relations]

For most people, going from a subdued environment to one that has constant hustle might be a bit jarring, but for Laura Payne, the general manager of the Purple Pig, it was a welcome change. Payne, who spent the last six years working at the members-only University Club (and oversaw the even more elite Tower Club for four years), has been working in the restaurant industry since she started waiting tables at 16. She fell in love with the business and eventually went to Kendall College to take some culinary classes, but primarily focus on hospitality management. She joined the Purple Pig back in June and fell in love with the warm, family-like environment created by Jimmy Bannos Sr and Jr. Eater chatted with Payne about what it's like to work in such a fast-paced restaurant.

So you've been at the Pig just a few months. Was it a hard adjustment coming from the more relaxed University Club?
The fact that it's so vibrant is enjoyable to come into. It's a very positive vibe here. It was an easy adjustment and it was refreshing.

What was the biggest adjustment?
Certainly the volume in the sense that it's a constant from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave. And also the late nights, but it doesn't take long [to get used to]. I am an evening person naturally, so once I got into the groove it didn't take long. It's really a situation instead of sitting around a table trying to draw up ways to get new business, it's more about accommodating people who walk in the door.

People can't make reservations, right?
We don't take reservations, which believe it or not it makes us more approachable. We're not holding seats for a certain slot, so there's more fluidity in service. You're constantly re-seating those tables.

It's 8 p.m. Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
You could get lucky, come in and it could be a 30 minute wait or it could be an hour and a half. But we offer cocktails on the patio and at the bar while you wait. In the winter, we offer an alternative area for cocktails [just outside the alternative entrance]. We just put up some really nice photos that Jimmy's daughter took in Greece because it is kind of a waiting area for us.

Are the bar spots first come or do you have to get seated by a host?
First come. Many people are able to wait at the bar and chef's counter while waiting for a table. A lot of people end up staying there and enjoying dinner there. [At the communal tables], we find a lot of people offering somebody to taste food, and conversation starts and it's kind of a party environment. You can mingle and let your hair down. That's the way they wanted it from the beginning. They wanted it to be a fun place.

As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
[Laughs.] No, not necessariy. We like to think we can accommodate everyone equally and everyone has a chance of getting in. Being nice does help. We do encourage people to be open to sitting at the bar and chef's counter, where you get full on-site action of the chefs.

Tell me about your favorite customers, whether a specific type of diner or regulars.
We love people who give us the opportunity to select the menu for them. We ask a few questions about likes dislikes and allergies, etc. When they allow us to take them on that journey, it can be a lot of fun.

Has it ever backfired?
Anytime we're the ones making the recommendations, we take that very seriously. If anything, it builds the relationship with the customer as you ask them if they like something, it helps to select the next few items since the food comes out a couple of plates at a time.

What about celebrities? Has anyone fun—or fussy—come in lately?
When we do recognize someone, we do our best to accommodate them and get them a great seat. For the most part, everyone who has come in has been low profile and were always very gracious. Many times, they didn't attempt to call ahead. They just pop in. There's often not a wait during lunch or for late-night dining. People do that quite often. We saw a few around Lollapalooza popping in. Many are wearing sunglasses and they appreciate when we send them a few things.

How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to seat?
We make sure they feel welcome and give them a drink right away. They consider the wait differently if we are actually serving them. If they're willing to wait at the bar or on the patio benches, they enjoy spending time there before dinner. We don't have too much trouble with that.

What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
I can't say we have too many. There's the normal one where people would like to take the bone from the marrow home for their dog. And it's common to take full doggie bags because their dog loves our pork. I can't say there's been anything too off the wall or too crazy. I think you can get very adventurous here just working off our regular menu, whether that's wanting pig's tail or pig's ears. We're already pretty out of the box.

What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
We had someone that said they loved peanut butter and bacon and the common misconception is that we'd have those ingredients. We gave it a spin with nutella and they enjoyed it. It was a dessert panini with banana and nutella that's quite popular. So I consider that not being able to accommodate their request.

Do you find you're changing people's minds about eating certain things on the menu?
Absolutely. We find that once people have tried other things on our menu, we gain their trust and they are more willing to delve into something they many not have had before. We're one of the only places in the city where you can get pork sweetbreads and our approach is that if you try them anywhere, you should try them here. Other times, people may not like something, but they're happy they can say they tried it. When they don't like it it's usually because of the actual item and not the preparation.

What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
Our host team is key to our success and their ability to encourage people regardless if the wait is a half hour, really making sure people understand it's worth the wait and their ability to quote accurately. And we pride ourselves on our accuracy regarding that.

What abut your Gatekeeper tool?
Charm. Many people don't like the idea of waiting and think they can talk their way into a table. And just making sure you're being consistent, charming and welcoming while still encouraging them to wait.

When you're not at Purple Pig, where are you eating?
All over the city. I try do something new whenever I have the chance. It's not unusual for me to pop into Francesca's. I'm in Forest Park and Francesca's is one of our reliable places. Whether it's Bistronomic or something else new out there, I'm making sure I'm trying new things. I like the Publican. My husband is a chef so we're always trying new things.

The Purple Pig

500 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL