The Duck Inn, named for a restaurant owned by his great grandmother, was a long time coming—generations long—for chef/owner Kevin Hickey. His family tree threads through six generations in south side Bridgeport, and he spent 20 years as a chef for The Four Seasons and struck out in years' worth of attempts to fund his own restaurant that left the chef "beaten down." Hickey finally embraced his roots and passion through a series of chance and fateful encounters that resulted in the opening of his first restaurant a year ago mere doors down from his longtime ancestry.
Twelve months later, multiple accolades followed Hickey, including being named Eater Chicago's Restaurant of the Year for 2015. He chatted about the years he spent striving to open his own restaurant, why he feels it's successful, what bringing his restaurant to his native Bridgeport means to him, and what he hopes to do for the neighborhood.
After all the time and putting this together and generations of your family growing up in the neighborhood, what does it feel like to have this open for a year now?
It's strange. I never thought I would open a restaurant in Bridgeport but so many things just fell into place that led me to decide to do this. I tried for a long time to open a restaurant in the West Loop several years ago before a lot was really going on down there. I had a great concept. I had the menu I all figured out. I had great locations. And the only thing I didn't have was the money.
After losing one particularly fantastic location because I couldn't sign the lease I was driving home after I had taken a trip to New York a bit earlier and had gone to Roberta's in Bushwick—it had a big affect on me. That's such an awesome, cool restaurant with a really great staff and just a fun atmosphere. Brooklyn is hot right now, but if you go back 3-4 years ago, Bushwick was really not. So that was always lingering in the back of my mind and the night I lost the property deal, I was driving home and drove past the "for sale" sign for The Gem Bar, which I'd seen countless times. And I just figured screw it, I'll take a second mortgage out on my house. If they can draw people to Bushwick from lower Manhattan, I'm sure I can draw a few people down to Bridgeport and then the process started.
It took a lot of effort and I wouldn't say I gave up but there were a few times where I probably thought it would never happen. So, to achieve what we've achieved in this year does surprise me. You have lofty aspirations, you have big scenarios in your head and when you finally get down to the nitty gritty, get to opening a restaurant and opening day, unfortunately what you are really worrying about is, "Am I going to make it? Is there going to be enough sales? Am I going to be able to pay the staff? Do we have any longevity here?" And then to achieve some really, really awesome accolades, both locally and nationally—I don't think I really get it and it still seems quite surreal. (It's) very family-like down here with staff: Not a lot of pretension, there's not a lot of pedigree, there's not a lot of arrogance. A lot of the kids that work here live in Bridgeport or they live in Pilsen and that really was one of the really striking things when I was at Roberta's in Bushwick. I think we have that here.
Why did you never think you would open in Bridgeport?
I was born and raised in this neighborhood and it's a great, old neighborhood. It's kind of small town-ish. It just never seemed like a restaurant neighborhood. In the end, is this is a great business decision? Probably not. I pretty much guarantee that this restaurant will never have foot traffic from other restaurants. It's a classic, old-school Chicago formula of corner taverns surrounded by bungalows and single family homes. It started to coalesce in my mind in the last few years that Bridgeport has massive potential of becoming one of the next great neighborhoods of Chicago to flourish with retail and restaurants and uptick in quality of real estate and so forth.
It was a passionate thing; I was discouraged and I was beaten down. I was executive chef of a luxury hotel who has always been crazy passionate about the restaurant business as well as the job I had for 19 years but that wasn't enough to get somebody to write me a check. I got lucky in the long way of making this happen, partnering up with Rockit and I learned a lot about how to run a restaurant and all the stuff that used to keep me up at night. I don't worry about the menu, I don't worry about the quality of the food, I don't worry about the drinks and I don't really worry about the service because I know how to make all of those things work. But how do you pay the utilities properly and how do you do payroll tax and how do you amortize equipment?
I don't worry about the menu, I don't worry about the quality of the food, I don't worry about the drinks and I don't really worry about the service. But how do you pay the utilities properly and do payroll tax and amortize equipment?
And the name and the heritage, that was always in the back of my mind. It was handed down from generation to generation and it was lost in the depression when my great grandfather died. My great grandmother, who was always the great legend of the family, she lost the business but later opened a restaurant and called it The Duck Inn. She was so successful that she bought the business back, put my grandfather through school and everything was right and it got handed down to my father and then I chose not to take the mantle on it but it was always a legend in the back of my head. And when I was going to open a restaurant on Randolph or Fulton, the concept and the name were most definitely not this and not Duck Inn. One person in my life kept kicking me and saying "you gotta do The Duck Inn after your great grandmother." And I finally realized that was probably the best way to do it, especially when this location is close to where the original Duck Inn was and so close to where my great grandmother and grandfather lived.
Did Rockit help push it through money-wise to get it open?
No, it wasn't so much that. The financing came together once I had the location and concept—I was looking for considerably less than what I was looking for before when I was trying to do it in the West Loop. The money was starting to come together and I was at Four Seasons and in the process of trying to buy the building, but I couldn't close until I secured a liquor license. So I put my name on the application, that's public record and a couple of media outlets caught it. So I knew I had to go into work the next day at 7:30 in the morning when my boss was getting there and tell him, "listen, I'm trying to buy a building, I'm trying to do a restaurant, my name is on the liquor license, there's going to be a story tomorrow."
And it all worked out—once that happened, a mutual friend of Billy Dec's and mine who was trying to help me get my restaurant dream off the ground, she was like "you gotta talk to Kevin." And we started talking and eventually we walked into the space that is now Bottlefork and he was like "what do you want to do? You can do whatever you want here." We created Bottlefork and then the relationship was strong and all the while I was in the process of closing on the building and securing the last bits of the investors and we decided to partner up on everything, so Duck Inn got folded into the family of Rockit.
And the press helped.
It did. And kind of, in the back of my mind, to be honest with you, I probably should have put my father's name or my wife's name on the liquor license but I think I kind of subconsciously did it to force myself to have to resign from Four Seasons and really do this, otherwise maybe I wouldn't have. I'm not a young man, I've got a family and a mortgage. Four Seasons offered a great deal of security and financial safety.
You mentioned the concept you were thinking for the West Loop was way different. How did you figure out the concept for Duck Inn?
I had been writing restaurant concepts for years and Duck Inn started just as a combination of things I always wanted to do, and I believe restaurant concepts should be driven a lot by its location and its environment. When I walked into The Gem Bar, which is now The Duck Inn, you had a bar in the front, long and narrow and in the back you had like a dining room. I decided I wanted to have really cool bar snacks and have a real neighborhoody place. If you want to come in on a Tuesday night and have a hot dog or a cheeseburger, no problem. And then the dining room, I wanted to do something a little more elevated, a little more traditional, not small plates, not shared plates, which everybody at that point was doing. Back to a little more traditional style of menu: First course, main course. And the kitchen is ridiculously small, and when we first opened people were like "the menu's really small." This is a tiny little kitchen and we are just focusing on the best quality we can put out in a small amount.
The initial menu, I'm going to do what I know, food that I love to cook, I know it's going to work and I know how to set it up and make sure everybody understands it and then we can start changing as we get comfortable, solid and strong. And that's pretty much what we did and it worked. I honestly did the foie gras appetizer just because I know exactly how to make it perfectly every time. It probably won't sell on a corner in Bridgeport, but I'll start with that and then I'll see. Well now, I can't take it off the menu. It goes to show you what I know.
You didn't think that there would be other restaurants opening around Duck Inn, but someone had to be the first to open in West Loop, someone had to be the first to open in Logan Square, and look what it's like there now. Do you think that could happen in Bridgeport?
I do. There's a certain tug in my soul that I have to help bring this neighborhood at least back to where it was. Will I see it turn into a Logan Square or Wicker Park? I don't know. I think it has that potential. I would just like to see it come back to where it was when I was a kid: Where every storefront on Archer Avenue was a business. Same on Halsted. Nana came here first, there were neighborhood Italian joints, steak sandwiches and beef sandwiches and pizza and stuff like that but there really was not much more. But I had the thought and I still feel this: It is more than just opening a restaurant. I hope we can pull people into the neighborhood. And I know a number of chefs in the city who have looked in the neighborhood for a space.
How has it been in the first year compared to what you hoped or expected as far as drawing people in?
There's a certain tug in my soul that I have to help bring this neighborhood at least back to where it was.
It's been kind of a crazy up-and-down year. We opened up with a bang and we were busy from the get go and then it kind of tapered off and then summer was actually pretty tough and we weren't able to capitalize on that spectacular outdoor space that we have because the weather just wasn't happening. Once we were able to launch our luaus and stuff, they were packed, they were really popular, (but) we weren't full inside but we were packed outside. And if you want to be successful you need to be full both in and out. We've got that locked down definitely for next year, all of our events and dates and we know what we're going to do.
I think if you have a restaurant like this that has received the amount of great accolades and critical attention that we've received and we were on a corner on Clark Street, we'd probably be packed every single night, but we're not. We're trying to build that business. There is definitely room for growth.
In a perfect world, where would you like and hope Duck Inn to be in five years, 10 years from now?
Full all the time. I believe strongly that it will be because in the next two-to-five years, the amount of people living in and moving to Bridgeport is going to grow exponentially.
I think the key to longevity is you don't mess with what made it successful. I think we can be creative and be innovative because we have been in the 12 months we've been open but we haven't changed the formula.
What have people liked the most about Duck Inn in year one?
I think mostly the atmosphere and the experience they have when they come here. I think people appreciate it being a corner restaurant, I think they appreciate the history of it, the staff. It's not a pretentious, arrogant kind of experience. I've preached from day one what kind of service I wanted to have here and how I wanted people treated and I hear it all the time from customers how much they love the staff and they love the ambience and then they talk about specifics. I don't think that I could have the best rotisserie duck in the world and that alone would make me successful. I've learned 30 years in the restaurant business and just being a huge restaurant lover myself, I'm not going back to a place unless I get treated nice and have a good time. They want to be treated warmly; they want to feel welcome. That's the key to success.
Speaking of success, you've mentioned all of the accolades. Is there anything you feel like has specifically drawn critics and media to love Duck Inn? And how was that affected business?
I give the same lecture to the staff at least three times a week: "Listen, congratulations, you guys have done it again—we won Eater, we won Esquire, USA Today, we're on this list or on that list, thank you, thank you, you guys are awesome. Now it is all downhill; where we do we go from here? Now it is going to bring the attention, bring the critical opinion more than before." Some guy is going to read and say, "oh Duck Inn got best restaurant from Eater, well I'll see about that" and they are going to come down here and they are going to look for inconsistencies and imperfections. But I think that the difference is to some other restaurants (is that) we never put ourselves out there as a paradigm of fine dining, as a temple of elegance and perfection. So that's where the pressure and intensity is a lot different than what we're feeling here.
Some guy is going to say, "Duck Inn got best restaurant from Eater, well I'll see about that," and they are going to come down here and they are going to look for inconsistencies and imperfections.
And we opened at the end of 2014, so we were open for very close to a year when we got a lot of these accolades which is probably a good thing. If we would have gotten the accolades right out the gate we might have gotten a big rush of people who might not have necessarily become our customers and it might have scared off some of the people who have become our customers. And hopefully in the 11-and-a-half months we already built the clientele and we already had a great deal of business. But it is scary. Bill Kim said it to me the other day, he is probably my closest friend in the business, he was talking about Urban Belly and he said the first year's great, year two, year three, that's going to be hard. You're not the hot new thing anymore so how do you keep people coming back. By building a base already of people who love it, regardless of the accolades.
What funny stories happened along the way in the first year?
The joke around the staff is if somebody comes in and says they are related to me, they most likely are. That happens on like a nightly basis. I've had a tremendous amount of 60/70-year-old women come in and say "I used to change your diapers." To the point where I've called my mother and asked, "was I ever home? It seems like every lady in the neighborhood babysat me." I've had one or two guys come in and find their names on the bowling trophies that are on display from the 60s and 70s, including my own father. There's a lot of history here: The original family members that owned the bar that was here have come in and had dinner and hung out. They sit at table 12 in the dining room and say "this used to be my bedroom."
What other history happened in the space?
It was a pre-prohibition bar, there's a trapdoor behind the bar, I know they used to serve booze and sneak out the back door when the cops came. I know a lot of wild stuff happened here over the years.
Do you feel like a conquering hero in a way?
I don't feel like a conquering hero at all but I do feel emotional, a pull to be a part of the success and the future of this neighborhood. I feel responsibility to my ancestors, I can feel the family that has been here for five generations.
This is more than a restaurant. This is an attempt to bring attention to a great neighborhood that has massive potential. The more guys that want to come down here and open bars and restaurants the better.