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Inside Willis Tower’s $500 Million Renovation, Which Includes New Restaurants and a Food Hall

Chicago’s tallest skyscraper has lined up Shake Shack, Rick Bayless, and Urbanspace food hall

The outside of a skyscrape with black windows.
Shake Shack opens today inside Willis Tower.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Chicago’s tallest skyscraper, Willis Tower, hosts about 2 million annual visitors on its Skydeck, and that should provide ample customers for its new restaurants opening later this year and throughout 2020. There are several stages for the project which has been in the works for two years. Shake Shack opens on Wednesday, while Brown Bag Seafood Co. and Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken have already been open for about a month. There’s also a food hall overlooking the first-floor atrium.

While the former Sears Tower will always see tourists, the improvements, part of an $500 million renovation plan, are meant to make the building relevant to locals, EQ Office’s Kirsten Hull said. At a media event on Monday, Hull spoke about little touches throughout the space meant to appeal to Chicagoans. One floor is supposed to feel like the West Loop/Fulton Market. Another is supposed to represent Gold Coast. The revamped atrium is meant to give Skydeck visitors a sparkling new entrance. Curbed Chicago has more on the overall plan, including info about the new co-worker space.

The hallway entrance to a Shake Shack with light wood and neon signs.
Shake Shack is open inside the Willis Tower.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago
A fast-food restaurants menu on six menu boards with four computer screens mounted on a table.
The chain also offers online ordering in suburban Vernon Hills, but this is the first in Chicago.
Inside a fast-food restaurant’s dining room.
The standard Shake Shack decor.

The umbrella name for the project is called Catalog, a nod to Sears Holdings Corporation. Sears called the tower home before moving to suburban Hoffman Estates. Customers would browse the store’s mail-order catalog, called the Wishbook. As retail flocks to online ordering, Hull called the catalog “the original retail disruptor.” There are various components for the project: some are ground-floor restaurants, and then there’s Urbanspace, the food hall from a New York company that has plans for two Chicago locations. They’re bringing Roberta’s pizza from Brooklyn to both.

EQ Office manages the Willis Tower and the company has the daunting task of ensuring its new restaurants complement each other creating a worthwhile experience for the office workers upstairs, employees at nearby buildings, and tourists coming from all over the world. EQ Office’s Jim Anderson talked about a new app that will eventually offer online ordering. He hopes most of the restaurants utilize its smartphone ordering platform. But realistically, companies such as Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises have already invested in their own digital endeavors and may not see the need for joining. Shake Shack’s location is the first in Chicago with digital ordering kiosks.

A construction site inside a skyscraper.
Sushi-San will go underneath those stairs.
The view from a railing overlooking a large atrium with a large honeycomb-like skyscraper.
Urbanspace food hall will go on upstairs.

LEYE will have a sushi bar right underneath a set of stairs on the first floor. Sushi-San should open early next year and will have a grab-and-go station and an abbreviated 45-minute omakase.

Tortazo is Bayless’s new fast-casual restaurant. The famous chef had entered into a partnership with Jollibee. Chicago chefs have already bemoaned the lack of opportunities for Mexican chefs at the United Center, and feel the Willis Tower is another forum for discussion. The deal, in a nutshell, is a fast-food giant from the Philippines teaming with a white chef from Oklahoma on a multi-million dollar deal to open a chain of Mexican restaurants. A rep from Bayless said Tortazo is a natural evolution of Bayless’s Xoco and Tortas Fronteras restaurants. They plan to open more around Chicago before taking the concept nationwide. Tortazo’s 77-seat dining room should open next month on the tower’s main level on the north side of the building, just to the left of the Wacker Drive entrance.

A pastel pink and blue hallway.
Crews are working on Rick Bayless’s new restaurnt.
There’s plenty of work for Tortazo.

Next to Tortazo, there’s signage for Joe and the Juice, the Danish coffee and juice bar that entered the Chicago market last year. Sweetgreen salads will also open. The restaurants will also be open on the weekends, which is a relative rarity in downtown Chicago. Anderson said half the Skydeck’s visitors come after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

There’s plenty of construction dust, which is a burden for restaurant owners including Donna Lee of Brown Bag. It’s challenging enough to enter a new space and learn customer tendencies. Lee isn’t sure when her restaurant will be busiest, but she’s got the experience of working at Revival Food Hall in the Loop. She’s waiting for crews to dismantle a temporary wall that blocks visitors from seeing Brown Bag and Do-Rite from the Wacker entrance.

Willis Tower’s management hopes to spark new interest in one of Chicago’s most popular landmarks. Come back for updates as workers get ready to deliver Catalog.

A quick-serve restaurant’s facade.
Brown Bag Seafood Co. opened about a month ago.
Customers lined up at a doughnut shop.
Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken is drawing customers down the hall from Shake Shack and Brown Bag Seafood Co.

Willis Tower

233 S Wacker Dr, , Visit Website

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