Despite frigid temperatures, Chicago's hot food scene and love for all things spicy was what grabbed the attention of management from Nando's Peri Peri.
Earlier this month, representatives from the South African grilled chicken chain announced plans for three Chicago locations scheduled to open next year. Construction for the first shop is set to start in January in the West Loop, said Nando's U.S. CEO Burton Heiss. Heiss, in Chicago last week to meet with city officials, sat down with Eater before flying the coop to talk expansion.
So how did Nando's know that Chicago was the right fit? For one thing, they looked at hot sauce sales, and not just Nando's sauce, which is available at Chicago retailers.
"We do look at the per-capita consumption of hot sauce in general as an indicator of 'are at least people open to flavor,'" Heiss said. "I don't recall the exact numbers, but Chicago has pretty decent sales."
Many globetrotters have yearned for Nando's charred birds and the smell of peri peri in America. The chain has more than 1,000 restaurants in Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom, among 30 countries. Nando's arrived in America in 2008 (in the Washington, D.C. area) and Chicago faced competition for expansion from Boston and Philadelphia, Heiss said, but apparently those cities were just too bland for the time being.
Heiss described his chain's peri peri as "deep and complex," and even though "there's plenty of heat to go around" he doesn't want to burn eaters' mouths when it comes to spice. Nando's has narrowed the field to three local farms to be the supplier of its fresh, never frozen fowl in Chicago.
"We are the antidote to bland, and that speaks to people all over," he said.
Nando's is a fast-casual chain with plates and silverware. Don't expect any tweaks to the Chicago menu, which will look similar to Nando's East Coast locations. However, the chain is looking to partner with local breweries to serve craft beers to pair with the peri peri. Sangria is also available, but there's no bar scene at Nando's.
"The latest that any restaurant stays open is midnight," Heiss said. "We're sort of good before you go out. We're not hanging out until 3 in the morning."
There's a long history of peri peri chicken tied to Portuguese explorers becoming enamored with Mozambique's bird's eye peppers. Given that history, Heiss isn't worried about a war, even as Fat Rice chef Abraham Conlan readies plans for his own peri peri joint in Chicago. Heiss preached chicken diplomacy.
"I think it gives credibility to peri peri chicken as an established style of food," he said. "This is a very big town, there's plenty of room for everybody. We love it, I have no issue with it at all."
Nando's hopes to open a second Chicago location in the summer at the New City development at Halsted and Clybourn. The store would feature 125 to 130 seats. A 3,845-square-foot Lakeview location at 670 W. Diversey would open in the fall and include 136 seats indoors and a 10-seat patio. The West Loop location at 945 W. Randolph would be 3,960 square feet with 126 indoor seats and 72 on the patio. There could be more Nando's in Chicago if the initial three flourish, Heiss said.
The average tab at Nando's is $13.50, and that speaks to the chain's broad appeal, Heiss said.
"At a great Nando's, you see some guys in suits, you see some friends meeting up before they go to the movies, you see some families," he said. "It sort of works for a lot of different people."