That exploding block in Logan Square got its first major opening just over a year ago when former Vie vets Nathan Sears and Adam Hebert first welcomed customers into The Radler in December 2013. It was a whirlwind first year, as the first-time business owners fought to keep the restaurant in the black while simultaneously expanding patrons' palettes from typical Americanized German food and beer.
Sears and Hebert spoke frankly about obstacles overcome, customers' take on their food and service, how changes on the ballooning stretch of Milwaukee Avenue affected business, and when their finer restaurant-within-a-restaurant, D.A.S., will finally open.
How has the first year gone?
Adam Hebert: Business-wise, we couldn't ask for much more. With what we went through in the beginning, with lack of financial backing and the hurdles we had to overcome just to stay in business and keep things moving and build the business and get people in and changing perceptions of German food, it's been a lot of fun and really challenging.
What were the hurdles you had to get through?
AH: One of the significant ones during the buildout was an investor was supposed to put in a significant amount of work that he never put into place—that's a big reason why D.A.S. hasn't opened yet, in addition to being short basically $140,000 worth of work which is $140,000 worth of cash. Starting a business where we weren't exactly cash flow positive in the beginning and just working our way through that when we had one of Chicago's worst winters and into a beautiful summer. And from chef's side, changing people's perspective on German food, to get people in here when they think they know what German food already is and dealing with people's preconceived notions of it just being meat and potatoes and what have you and offering something I think is truly stellar.
Nate, what have you dealt with with people's perceptions of German food?
Nathan Sears: Some people's expectations were the old familiar stuff and weren't realizing that there's a broader culinary landscape there that people were willing to acknowledge. Early on, people were hitting us for not having mustard with our pretzel but in Bavaria they eat it for breakfast with butter and jam. We ended up becoming good friends with the German-American Chamber of Commerce who helped us and were able to shed some light on some great stuff. It's one of those things where people think they know something better than us; we do research and we know what we're doing. We're doing something different and that's a massive challenge.
Have people's perceptions changed over the year, or have you changed any menu items for them, or both?
AH: A little bit of both. When you get a chance to talk to them about it you can enlighten them a little. The big one is when you get people who lived there and just moved to Chicago, or are here visiting, and you hear how refreshing it is for them to eat at a place that tastes like German food they're eating in Germany now. Also, our goals and backgrounds were so fine dining oriented. We had a number of steps to service and we found that it was a little off-putting to people in the neighborhood that service was so top-button. Instead of being so focused on a certain type of thing we opened ourselves up to a broader range of clientele.
When you go to open and people read about you, they develop an idea of what you are and if it's not what they had in their minds they're either delighted or disappointed. People know what we are now and it's reassuring to know that there's a number of people that like us enough to keep coming back.
What was opening night and the beginning like?
NS: I don't even remember to be honest. We were running until the doors open and we kept running. It's one of those things that a lot of people deal with when they open their first restaurant, you kind of over-anticipate the city's cooperation and things get dragged and you hire people, and we're still waiting for permits, and we have payroll, crap, we've got to get open. Number two and number three will be a little bit better but the first couple months were such a blur, we were just trying to keep up. Trying to set it up is one thing but operating it is something different. The original concept was small plates, sharing, family-style beer hall but people started ordering things more coursed out so we had to shift. I've had some great staff that has stuck with me in the kitchen and gone the extra mile so I'm very proud of them. But the last three months were when things started to stabilize.
What changed the last three months where things started to stabilize?
NS: Our clientele. We started getting a few regulars in here and people who tried us once or twice and were "okay, they're legit." The first couple months you have the new restaurant seekers that try the place and either love it or bash it and move on to the next new opening. This past year, as you know, a million places opened. So it's really over the past three/four/five months where we started seeing (regulars).
AH: Also, we have a huge number of large party reservations. Three months ago we realized this was becoming common for us and we put together a large party package which has been a game-changer. It's $35-45 (a person) and comes to the table family-style and they got to taste 10 or 12 different things on the menu. It's unique because there's nothing else really in the neighborhood where you can pull off a huge table and that's been a big win for us.
You were the first new place to open on that exploding block. How did that affect business when you opened and how did it change when other places opened?
NS: It definitely helps because it makes it more of a destination area. It's still one of those weird things: Logan Square is a hot neighborhood and it's residential but in reality the cost of living here is going up and there are no retail shops to stroll around here. It's still come in, eat, drink, and leave. But in a couple years it will be a draw to get other people to hang out for the vast majority of the day.
AH: It took some time for people to get down past Revolution; there was nothing else this way and with other construction going on you couldn't really see us. As soon as Slippery Slope opened there was definitely an influx of people coming down this way. The same thing with Emporium, that helped huge because now there's something to do.
Are you seeing people coming in to eat and making it a whole evening in the area?
AH: Definitely. There's a little bit of both going on; people coming in to eat before going dancing and drinking or coming in for a later bite. It's kind of funny—the first week that Slippery Slope was open, right before our kitchen closed we'd get an influx of people coming for a sausage or a pretzel. So it's been up and down trying to read whether we have a late night crowd and being a year in it's easier to read things based on previous experience rather than flying blind.
NS: Like lunch.
AH: Exactly. Which was crazy, everyday we'd be sitting here having meetings and person after person would try the door and we said "we should open for lunch." And then we did that and it was really only eight people a day and we just got those eight people. But I think in a few years once the neighborhood has more stuff to do lunch will be a more viable option. We just do brunch now on Saturdays and Sundays, which has been going great.
What's going on with D.A.S.?
AH: Currently, we have it built out as a private party space and are renting it out for events for up to 45 people to do cocktail receptions and carving stations and that sort of thing. But we are in the works of getting it built out. We're taking our time to make sure we get what we want and how we want it. We waited a year to get a legal situation with the person that was supposed to build it out squared away and got the capital and we're in no rush to pop it open. We'll probably open totally soft for a month beforehand. It will definitely happen in 2015.
Is the menu worked out?
NS: It's going be based on the seasons and the timeframe when we open so if we open in February the menu's going to be completely different than if we open in June. And it's not going to be like an Alinea or Grace menu—there's still going to be some trial and error with it but it's the same food I'm used to cooking just done with a little more finesse and focus and bringing in the nicest product that I can find. That's really the focus: doing straightforward food like fine dining used to be instead of flash.
You mentioned a financial deficit before. How is that now?
AH: We're in great shape. I can sleep at night, let's put it that way.
NS: A lot of people tell you to expect two years before you get on track with everything and to be able to make it a profitable business in 11 months has been huge.
AH: And getting ourselves to a point where we're Kosher with vendors and don't have to ask for favors has been huge. We're kind of out of the cash flow circus now.
Do you feel like you've educated people about German food?
AH: We talk about this a lot. There's been a consistent thing about trying to take German food by the horns and "let's be the spokespeople for this" and go all in. What was Italian food in this country before Mario Batali stepped in? It's like any other country—there's different agriculture and different regions that influence the food in Germany. Even doing this in the beer program has been fun—people think it's all pilsners in Germany.
What do you have coming up in the next year and beyond?
NS: Now we're talking about the direction we want the menu to go, to incorporate more things that people are looking for as diners. One thing we're talking about is scallops; in Northern Germany they eat the shit out of shellfish and a lot of freshwater fish. Let's incorporate more of that and make it understood that this is German food. And getting D.A.S. open to show people how we can continue it and keep with the German culture and cuisine. Preparing the special on the board tableside is one thing we're kicking around. Overall, it's about pushing the concept and finding all these little things we can do to help reinforce and continue to educate people and the exposure is what we're trying to push on the kitchen side.
AH: From a business standpoint, we talked about the larger parties and we're also starting to push for more buyouts. I'm looking forward to having more folks in here that are looking for a new entertaining place to educate clients that's outside of the steakhouse realm and show them they know the city better than just downtown.