The holidays wouldn't be the same for many Chicagoans without an annual visit to The Walnut Room, the restaurant on the seventh floor of the flagship
Marshall Field's Macy's on State Street. It's routine to take a peek at the holiday-themed store windows and then eat at the restaurant. The Walnut Room features a history that started when it opened in 1907, making it the one of the oldest continually-operated restaurant in the country. But three-hour waits can certainly dilute the buzz from your eggnog.
If you thought Santa's job was tough, you haven't spoken with Michelle Steiner, director of the food division at Macy's State Street. Steiner's responsible for keeping order at the Walnut Room, even during the most stressful holiday customer meltdown. And we're talking about the adults, not the kids. Steiner broke free her day to talk a little bit about what makes the Walnut Room so special.
What's a typical day like?
I'll take you through the day before Christmas. We open at 7 a.m. So we'll do our breakfast buffet. We'll have people lined up outside, across the street at State Street and Washington, waiting to get into the building. When the store opens for the day, a flood of people go and stand at every elevator bank to get up to the seventh floor. We have a mad rush of people that know where you can line up. We can seat 600 people, and we will line them up. And then we start taking pagers. Around 9:30, 9:45, we will stop the seating for breakfast, and by then we already have another line forming for folks interested in lunch. Our first seating will be 10 to 10:30 and then we do half-hour seating increments: 10:30 to 11, 11 to 11:30. The folks that are in the back of the line may not get to choose. By the time the get up to the front, we may be handing out 2 o'clock pagers.
So when's the best time to come in to avoid a long wait?
Tricks would be coming in on any weekday, or the breakfast buffets on the weekends or the weekdays. You can usually come in and either be seated, as we have 600 seats, or you can pick up a pager and really dictate the time you want to come back. And that's really the best way. If you come in on a weekend in the afternoon it's a three-hour wait. The closer we get to Christmas on the weekdays it's a similar wait time.
When does the chaos begin?
The tree lighting. This year it was on the 8th of November. It's historically the first Saturday of November, but this year Halloween was the day before, so we choose to do it a week later. That really kicks off the holiday season. And next year we'll go back to the first Saturday. The tree will go down, the last day of the tree is [January] 11th, which is a Sunday. Business tapers off after the New Year. That's also another time when you could come and still have the same experience without the wait.
How long is the longest line?
We've pushed to four hours. The weekends before Christmas, the weekends before Thanksgiving, those are our biggest weekends.
What are some of the things guests say to try to evade the line?
We have small children. We have handicapped-people in our family. These are our guests that push the envelope a bit with every little variable. Anniversaries. Birthdays. "We've been coming for the last 50 years and we always get sat by the tree." There are those types of things. So whether it's the diabetic in family, or grandma who is 101 years old that can't stand for too long in line — and they've always been taken care before for the last 50 years.
So how do you accommodate the people with real needs?
We will on a very busy day take care of 3,500 guests. So that's one day, and if we had 10 percent of that with special requests it would interfere with accommodating every single person in a fair way. So I think we try to really be fair with everybody...this is like a machine during holidays. If you mess with the machine you could completely throw off the entire day. Whether it's something with the kitchen, or whether it's one person making an accommodation. And if someone else has been waiting for three hours gets wind of the fact that we've made a special accommodation, it's mayhem. It could be complete anarchy. People will take you down.
Can you give me an example of a debacle?
Let's say in our pager pick-up area they haven't been charged the night before. Big problem, right? People are leaving. We're taking their names, and the next timeframe we have is three hours later. They're taking a pager. They're taking our information sheet. They're going to shop in the store. Three and a half hours later, no pagers are going off. They come up, of course we try to get them back in the tank to accommodate them, but they expect come right in because their pager hasn't gone off.
Do you have extra staff for the season?
We hire 400-plus seasonal associates just for the Walnut Room. So out of those 90 are servers, and we bring back associates from previous years. They've done a good job for us and they're engaged.
How do you keep the customers happy when something goes awry?
For service recovery we offer complimentary desserts. We will offer a complimentary holiday beverage, those are very popular as well. And usually if we have a ticket time issue, we have an issue with the food or you have a customer whose pager didn't go off, our servers are empowered to provided dessert or cocktails — whatever they feel —based on what it takes to satisfy that guest. We want them to feel better for coming in before they leave the restaurant.
Is the Walnut Room overlooked after the holidays?
Yes. The Walnut Room is a hidden gem for coming in after work and having a cocktail. Most people are drawn to go to the RPMs, The Purple Pig or any of the very trendy locations. The stigma with the Walnut Room has been that it's for more mature clients and we really have done many things to our menus to get us relevant. So we're making our own simple syrup. We're stuffing our own olives with blue cheese. We've got our atomizers for our vermouth. We're doing truffled popcorn. We've got seared scallops on the menu that we just introduced this last spring season. That really got people to start talking about the things we're doing. Besides the pot pie. And we give credit to that pot pie that's recipe has been around for 125 years.
Will I have to wait to get into the wine bar?
It's first come, first serve, there's no pager, you don't have to wait [and we serve a full menu]. When we're full at the wine bar we will put a hostess at the end. But you are able to be seated at the wine bar with a very minimal wait.
Have you ever witnessed a bad meltdown from a child?
Oh lots of meltdowns, yes! Lots of meltdowns on the floor with the kicking and screaming. And the parents are pretty good about it. After a short time they get their kids and go and try to make sure they're going to be okay. But we do get that and we try to bring their food out first.
How many adult holiday meltdowns do you see?
Probably two or three a day. The free drinks work really well on that! At the end of the day, the buying somebody a cocktail, it really does seem to do the trick.