Fourteen years after creating one of Chicago’s biggest nightlife empires, Rockit Ranch Productions’ co-founders are splitting the company and amicably going their separate ways. Billy Dec will retain most of Rockit’s assets except the River North barstaurant that the company took its name. Co-founder Brad Young will keep Rockit Bar & Grill with Dec buying Young’s stake in Sunda’s River North and Nashville restaurants, the Underground nightclub, and Rockit Burger Bar in Wrigleyville.
Dec also keeps the management company, as he remains CEO of Rockit Ranch Productions. He’s has been splitting his time between Chicago and Nashville where he opened a Sunda three months ago. Dec and Young described the decision as a business one, with Dec adding that he wanted more time to concentrate on his passions. He has a movie production company and designs on opening restaurants across the country.
“I wanted to bring the other passions in my life into the fold,” Dec said. “It wasn’t fair to make the partners deal with that.”
Young said the plan to split only developed over the last month. He called it a difficult decision to sell his stakes in Sunda, the Underground, and the Wrigleyville burger bar. In the end, the two had different visions for their personal futures and separation was “the best course of action.”
“There are lots of opportunities there in the marketplace,” Young added. “People would be foolish not to take them.”
Rockit Bar & Grill has sat closed for renovations since January but will reopen on August 3. The shutter raised eyebrows because it was the second time management had closed the club in three years. They remodeled the place and reopened in May 2015 in time for its 10th anniversary.
“We went the wrong direction last time,” Young said of the 2015 remodel. “Now we’re giving the people what they want and deserve.”
Dec and Young maintained that the Rockit brand remained a strong one and that they’re strong financially. Besides Rockit’s shutter for renovations, in October, chef Kevin Hickey left the company as partner and took his Bridgeport restaurant, The Duck Inn, with him. The Duck Inn had been operating under the Rockit umbrella. Even more abrupt was the shutter of Otto Mezza, an Italian-themed cocktail bar that Hickey developed in concert with beverage director Brandon Philips. The River North bar opened with huge fanfare during the weekend of the James Beard Awards in April 2017 but closed six months later. A few weeks later, Dec also closed Bottlefork in River North.
“Arguably, we’re in better shape,” Dec said. “We are focused 100 percent on the parts we’re most passionate about.”
Dec is most passionate about Sunda’s Pan-Asian potential. He talked about annual visits to his family in the Philippines as a child, and how important sharing that culture is to him. That’s especially important in Nashville, as the area doesn’t have as many Asian restaurants as back home in Chicago. For further perspective, Eater New York editor Serena Dai brought film crews with her to her childhood home in Tennessee to explore the Chinese restaurants she grew up with on an episode of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious.
While Dec sounded committed to Sunda, he’s open to selling Rockit Burger Bar or collaborating with a new operator in Wrigleyville. As far as Young, he’s also leaving the door open to expanding his own brand and opening restaurants. The split is meant to be liberating so each man can pursue their own interests.
Dec and Young began their partnership 20 years ago, before Rockit launched. Young, now approaching 50, reflected on the changes to Chicago’s landscape. When Rockit opened in River North, taxi drivers — in the time before Uber/Lyft — avoided the area believing it was dangerous. Rockit was a pioneer, bringing young professionals into a space before River North turned into an entertainment district.
“What’s changed?” Young said. “What hasn’t changed?”
Stay tuned next week for more news on Rockit’s latest incarnation.