One year ago, two chefs virtually unknown to most of Chicago's eating enthusiasts secretively opened a mysterious upscale steak-driven restaurant in a location that few would expect, on Western Avenue on the border of Humboldt Park. One year later, in one of the most unlikely restaurant success stories, Boeufhaus is a member of Chicago's 38 essential restaurants.
While the opening was mysterious, the project had been in the works for more than three years—it began with a concept centered around beef sandwiches—and ownership continues to stay the course and fill out facets of the restaurant when they're ready, continuing an ethos they steadfastly believe in and hope will guide the restaurant to continually cement a place in the neighborhood and Chicago's dining stratosphere as a whole. Chef/partners Brian Ahern and Jamie Finnegan sat down during a recent lunch service to discuss that ethos, Bouefhaus' beginning, future and path along the way, while patrons munched on those beef sandwiches around them.
How long were you working on the restaurant before you opened?
Jamie Finnegan: We bought the building in August of 2013 and really started to build out in February 2014.
Brian Ahern: Piecing together the financial aspect of it is always the hardest part, and our situation is pretty unique because we owned the place outright. We probably could have gotten open faster if we had gotten others involved and given up a piece of the business but we didn't want to do that. It was the best decision that we made; we don't have to answer to anybody else.
JF: It gives us a lot of freedom in a lot of ways, and it helped us learn a lot about the buildout because as we were building out we were shoring up financing, so pretty early on we had to learn how to make concessions and compromises. I think it still adheres to the vision and the concept but the realities of what we can afford set in pretty quick. We're still adding pieces to the puzzle now. It never stops.
How did you guys come together originally and come up with the concept?
BA: Jamie and I met each other working down at DB (Daniel Boulud) Bistro in Miami. We were both ready to get out of Miami, our wives were ready to get out of Miami, and Jamie is from Chicago and has a lot of family here. We started throwing around the idea for beef sandwiches, basically is where it started, and it snowballed into what we have here now.
What kind of beef sandwiches?
JF: Multicultural. The conversation started with, "Where can we go in Miami for a beef sandwich?" That led to, "Where can we go to get an Italian beef or a pastrami or a cheesesteak? Is there anything like that in Chicago (where you can get them all in one place)?" "No, not really. There's cultural enclaves that have one of those, but what if we (started doing them all in one place)." We originally were thinking a food truck or a walk-up fast-casual-type thing but we found the building and it took the project in another direction because it has a history of butchery since it was built, a smoker built into the kitchen, it had a liquor license, so it helped fine-tune a good core concept. When we got the building it turned into "Let's just do beef."
Was it on purpose that you bought a building with all that beef equipment, when you already wanted to make beef sandwiches?
JF: No. Our philosophy was to let the place and the neighborhood tell us what would be the best fit for it, and this place told us a lot. It was a natural inspiration point that we were able to run with.
BA: The more ambitious we got, the further we got from the original idea, but in a good way. Going into business (for yourself) can be a daunting thing but in no point in time did we ever really question the concept or the idea.
And you came full circle in a way when you started selling the beef sandwiches at lunch. But the restaurant ended up being way more upscale, as far as food and price point, than you originally intended, but it's still a comfortable neighborhood place. Was that a conscious decision?
JF: We like the juxtaposition of elevated cuisine and service and wine program (but) in a casual environment (because) it appeals very much to the way we like to eat. When we met we would go out to places that did an exceptional job with the food and attention to detail but didn't necessarily have to be fine dining. Before we started picking finishings and fixtures there was a feeling that we wanted people to be very comfortable and still be wowed when the food was placed in front of them.
BA: And we never wavered on the importance of service. We talk often with our staff that it's a big deal for people to go out to eat and we can never forget that.
JF: Honestly, we really didn't see this price point coming at all and we've had to make adjustments. Really early on it became apparent that this was a special occasion place and we had to make immediate adjustments...especially to be very conscientious (with service) at this price point.
BA: You don't have to come here and spend $65 on a steak. You can get the same experience just eating your way through the left side of the menu, and that's a wonderful next step for the place.
And with the price point, you're not in a corporate expense account kind of neighborhood. Maybe if you were downtown...
BA: (The corporate expense crowd) has started to move a little west. We get about 10 (tables of corporate expense account clientele) a week.
JF: We wanted to open up to the industry a little more, in terms of price point, and we came out with a starter-appetizer-half-price bottle of wine (deal), which has worked. Happy hour has done that too to a certain degree as well, again to appeal to the neighborhood or anyone that wants to come in and give us a shot.
BA: From knowing what we're offering, from quality of what's being sourced, from the wine to food to the beef it's the best that money can buy, it's of the utmost importance to be able to provide it in the most affordable way possible. There's no price-gouging going on here.
There are very few restaurants in your neighborhood at your level. Do you see that as a positive or negative?
BA: I think that's part of what makes the place attractive. You don't have to go downtown, you don't have to pay for parking, you don't have to valet—but valet is coming soon (to Boeufhaus). I think it's one of the great things about the place, that there is somewhere you can get a level of service that's on par with some of the best restaurants in the city, that just happens to be at Western and Augusta.
JF: A lot of that comes from it not really happening on purpose. We never really stopped and looked at it like that; it just sort of happened. And we can't charge what they charge in River North for the same product.
Do you consider Boeufhaus a steakhouse?
BA: Not really. Obviously the name is the easiest way to lump us into that world. The name stemmed early on from the idea about the beef sandwiches and it snowballed and became "let's have big-ass ribeyes" and went from there. I consider us a well-rounded, attentive, quality restaurant that happens to have a dedicated portion of our menu focused on the highest-quality beef that money can buy. I hear it all the time, and people often appreciate that the beef wasn't even their favorite part of the menu.
JF: We're fine-tuning the menu a little bit in a couple weeks and the emphasis will be more on the composed entrée side. Another thing we're working on is balancing the lunch menu—we've got a very talented young butcher who's taking our charcuterie program to places we're excited about. At the end of the day we can't control what people classify us as—people's perception and what they want to say and write about us is their prerogative, and it's okay.
Was it just you two designing and working on the space before you opened?
BA: Every single inch was Jamie and I. We were lucky enough to have some artist friends to lean on who said, "Maybe think about this color or that color." We went through miles and miles of blue tape on an empty floor for months and months and months, saying, "How's this going to work or where's this going to go."
JF: We thought, "This may be our one and only (restaurant) so let's make it in the way we want it."
What did it feel like when you finally got it open and how did it go?
BA: Like probably the majority of people who go at it for themselves, we opened just as much out of "okay, it's ready" as "we have to open the door (financially)." When we did friends and family we had construction lights hanging in the kitchen. It was crazy. Opening how we chose to open, under the radar and let's just unlock the door, the first month was pretty scary because it wasn't too busy. But that was probably the best decision that we made because we were able to get our feet wet and learn.
JF: We also had limited resources towards the end so friends and family became literally family. The advertising/marketing budget was nil. We also felt, because I had most recently cooked in Miami, and our staff, although Brian had a few from Fish Bar, we really wanted them to embrace our food and our philosophy and we had to squeeze (that expense) into what we could afford to get them to come in and train them. We had a lot of respect for them for taking a flier on us.
BA: We did two days of tastings for the staff and we were halfway through day one and I just wasn't happy and I said, "That's it, we're done. Throw it in the garbage, we're done. Come back tomorrow—we're not ready." We're two guys that can't really afford to be feeding the 35 people in the room and we threw all the food, $200 worth of corned beef, in the garbage and came back the next day and put our best foot forward. After that I think the staff was like "Oh wow, they're serious."
Many people didn't know much about you guys, you opened really secretively, you're doing higher-end food in a location where people wouldn't expect it. Put all that together and it becomes a fascinating story.
JF: One of the things we talked a lot about was not so much whether people would know us but what we wanted to be known for. We had a lot of conversations about believing that hard work pays off and at the end of the day we are going to be judged by that last guest's experience, that last plate of food, that last pour of wine; that is really going to trump anything we say we're going to do before it happens.
BA: Service, quality, execution, be genuine, be honest; if people can't get behind that then I don't think you'll have repeat customers like we do. It's a special thing to go out to dinner and there's a lot of places where you can go and a lot of different experiences you can have. A lot of places opened around the same time we did and we want to go there as much as our guests probably want to go there too. So how do you win them back?
After all that, how do you feel?
BA: I feel like we're turning a corner again. We came out of the gate and were hot real fast, then started to plateau a bit, which is completely natural, and I'm excited to see where we go. It's a good little restaurant that's getting better. People say often that, "you should be so proud." I am proud but there's a big part of me that's not proud at all. We've got a long way to go, but it's getting better.