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Operational Partner Alex Saper Discusses Eataly Chicago's First Two Months

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Photo: Galdones Photography

While the wait for Eataly to open moved at a snail's pace, the first two months of the celebrity chef-driven Italian mega-store flew by. From closing for a day after week one to opening Baffo to prepping new features, Eataly operational partner and Chicago general manager Alex Saper talked about how the first two months have gone and what's on the horizon at Eataly Chicago.

How have the first two months gone?
Things are great. Chicago has responded very well and we've had a great opening two months. Chicago is a great city, obviously it's been really cold. We're going to work with some Chicago chefs and we want to do some live music. There's a lot of stuff we're going to be doing over the next two months.

Where would the music take place?
We're thinking maybe at the piazza. And I can't let you know anything else right now because we're still working on it. We're working on a couple of different events.

What kind of chef stuff are you working on?
We have our school opening which is great. We're doing our first class with Lydia (Bastianich), who is the dean of the school, on March 5. We're just finishing up all of our construction on that. The school is a very big part of our concept and we're excited to get it opened.

What can people expect at the school?
Expect at least five classes per week, if not six or seven, and the local Chicago chefs to be in-house. We'll have wine classes, cheese classes, recurring classes, we'll try to do some hands-on classes.

What were you expecting business-wise and where has it come in?
We were definitely expecting business, that's why we chose Chicago. To say that we expected that opening first week, no one could plan for that much business, so we definitely exceeded our expectations.

Did the appetites of Chicagoans surprise you at all?
Definitely. There's been a great response to the pizza and pasta. On the retail side, things are going great, our bakery has been producing much more bread than in New York. People are warming up more and more to the markets. We're starting to see more return customers as well as new people and tourists.

Do you get to a point where it's past the beginning stage when it's new and people just have to see it?
In the beginning, obviously, it was like that. I think pretty quickly, people see the quality we have and what we're trying to do and we definitely have the people that live in the area that are coming to do their shopping.

Is there anything you can do to make people think that it's not that crowded or crazy there?
January and February are never going to be as busy as December. Little by little people are coming in and noticing that there are reasonable crowds. The space is so much bigger than New York and it's easier to move around.

Are there any items that have done better here than in New York or vice versa?
Our beer has done very well, Chicagoans love beer. Our bakery has done very well. And obviously the Nutella (bar), the response has been incredible.

How is Baffo being accepted?
Baffo is doing great. Most people who we speak to are very happy with the pricing, but a lot of people say "oh, that's expensive." But the goal of Eataly is you can come in and get a $2 focaccia or you can go and spend a hundred and something dollars on a fancy fine-dining meal. We have a bunch of regulars already.

Do you see anything you're going to have to tweak in the next couple of months?
I think there are always the little things you do, just the environment you're in, but there's really nothing to change in regards to the work. We want to have more people (working) at the store. I know that's a big thing that people have been talking about, just to have people explain the products and what they're used for.

What is the biggest lesson you and the company has learned about this opening?
That people like Nutella and people really like pizza and pasta. We weren't expecting that to be as big as it is, a lot of people said "I think Chicago's not going to like it."

How popular has the Nutella bar been?
It's been pretty crazy. During the week it's a little calmer. But on the weekends you get a 45-minute wait at the Nutella station, which is pretty crazy. We've made a lot of crepes, well into the thousands.

Do you have any tips to manage the wait times at the restaurants?
Obviously coming during the week is way easier. At lunch time it's going to be difficult but on the earlier or later side is not bad. Carne is a great place—most people, if they come in for the first time, miss it because it's in the back.

How has your personal experience been here? Are there any restaurants or bars that you have enjoyed?
Absolutely, I love Chicago. Everyone is very nice. The food scene is really interesting but it's been very cold so that part hasn't been fun. I really like Girl & the Goat and I really like Yusho. Of course I tried out Nico Osteria, it was very good as well. I've been to Alinea which was great as well.

What else can people expect going forward?
I would say to expect new things going on in the store. The more we get comfortable, the more we are going to be doing fun promotions.
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· Eataly Chicago [Official Site]

Eataly Chicago

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