Nellcôte general manager Chad Feldman hasn't always been a part of the restaurant industry. Back in 2001, he moved to Chicago from his hometown of Detroit to run a distribution company, but after three years he was burned out and headed back to the Motor City. There, he worked as the GM of a now-closed restaurant for about a year and a half before being recruited by Lettuce Entertain You for its Shaw's Crab House division.
While working his way up in the company over the next seven years, he developed a passion for wine, but also blew out three discs in his back and eventually had spinal fusion surgery. During his recovery, he was hired to run the bar and restaurant at the Sofitel, where he only remained a few months before joining forces with Element Collective and helped open Nellcôte.
It's 8pm Saturday. What's the wait for a table?
It's going to be anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours, if there's even availability at all. One of the luxuries we have is having a space as big as it is, we can move things around, pull things out from the back, and with the counter space up top, we'll do everything we can.
What's the vibe like during the week – busy?
Every day for us at this point is extremely busy. We're averaging right in the 275 up to 350 covers every day and the vibe is always very high energy, the music is a bit louder than the average place and it's meant to be a bustling fun, high energy, great lively atmosphere. We're pretty much achieving that every day here.
Is it easy to get a reservation or should people plan well ahead of time?
Right now, we're taking reservations all the way into September, particularly for the prime time slots for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. During the week, even day of, the earlier reservations or late (9:30 on) you can usually luck out and get something. When it comes to the prime time slots, even on weekdays, can be a few weeks out.
Are there any places, other than the bar, where walk-ins can sit and eat?
Any area, any seat in the restaurant, is full service. We have the lounge behind the host stand, which is reserved always for walk-ins. The bar is never reserved either and the counter top seating above the bar is kept open for walk-ins the best we can.
As a customer, is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter, like cash or gifts?
No, no. We have a very strict policy where everyone from our door staff to managers knows that there's no taking money or bribes, per se. Everyone, no matter who it is, we want to accommodate everyone equally and as best we can.
Do people try?
Absolutely. Without actually seeing the money, I've had some people say [they have] $1,000 or go up to $1,500 on one occasion. It's just not something we do or will ever do. They want to eat here so bad and I love that they do, and we take it as an indirect compliment. It's flattering that people want to come in and see what we're doing. When it comes to figures like that, it makes you stop a minute that someone really wants to come in and they're willing to spend it.
Do they sulk away and wait for their table?
Yes, for the most part, but it is dependent on what our wait really is. At the same time, there are those who can't wait that long and are very hungry and need to go somewhere else.
Tell me about your favorite type of customers?
For me, in a brand new concept, every customer that comes in, I love. They've made the decision they're going to join us and experience what we're doing and spend their evening with us. There are nights, of course in a space this big, I'm not able to talk to every single guest who comes in. I try to as do the other managers. You get that one or two or three tables a night where you can really interact with a guest and tell them the story of Nellcôte and how it came to be. You can tell them about the kitchen cocktail program or talk about the flourmill, and even take them on a tour. Being able to show them and interact is always one of those things you really have to love as a GM or manager; you really love that opportunity to connect.
What about celebrities? Nellcôte seems to want to attract celebrities to hang out and party.
When you're talking about celebrities, it's more on the music side and Nellcôte having the fundamental tie to Villa Nellcôte in the South of France and coupled with everyone – the owners, myself, our staff – are truly music geeks. A lot of Nellcôte is geared toward music. We play an eclectic mix of music and louder than your typical restaurant. You hear music in a little bit of a different way. That has an attraction to celebrities on the music side. It's also a stunningly gorgeous place. One of the comments you hear time and again is the shock and awe of how stunning the venue is with the chandeliers, the marble, gleaming white with orange accents. It attracts people. We've had a very successful run. We've been on all of the top 10 lists and a lot of great press, which has attracted a lot of people as well.
Who are some celebrities who've been in?
Chris Klein, who was a ton of fun. The Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys, Edward Sharpe, Juliana Margulies, the Fray ... you never really know who is going to pop in. We'll know some ahead of time, but people do pop in. A lot of local athletes have joined us.
I also heard a celebrity asked to be seated in such a way they could be seen – who was it?
[laughs] Uh yea, that was Mr. Klein. We put him in the northern most table along the west side of the restaurant. He had come in to join us, was with his publicist, he wanted to be part of Nellcôte and see what the scene was. He spent a long time here and had a great time. He took a huge interest in what Nellcôte was so we took him on a tour. He was front and center and was really approachable. We've had other celebs come in who want to be off to the side and out of the public view.
What's the strangest request that you've gotten from a customer that you've accommodated?
It may not be strange to everyone, but we had a review that was written about us, even before we opened, that stated the flour mill was a sham and didn't exist. I believe it said it was a way to lure investors. We'll have people come in and request to see the flour mill to know it actually exists. It's right downstairs and very accessible. I find it odd when someone just doesn't believe it exists. We had two guys arguing about it so we had a quick way to settle that argument.
What about any requests you couldn't accommodate?
We've had some people who want a specific bottle of wine that we don't carry. We had one table that was adamant we'd be able to secure this bottle. It was an [Armand de Brignac] Ace of Spades Champagne, which you can't just walk down the street and pick it up. The Ace of Spades one always stands out because it's a very hard bottle to get even from your vendors.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
I need a solid strong dedicated team. I've always been personally a huge believer of, whoever is in any position, whether you're at an insurance company or a restaurant, that the GM or CEO is only as successful as their team. I'm lucky to have a dedicated team who loves to be here. For me, it's having that, they ultimately make me able to do my job.
When you're not at Nellcôte, where are you eating and drinking?
I recently returned to the West Loop to live after a four-year hiatus. Au Cheval, Girl & The Goat, the places right around here, Blackbird and avec. It's a quick easy walk to any of those places.