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Two Chicago Restaurant Titans Team Up to Host Huge Hospitality Conference

The Welcome Conference, a New York-based event headlined by heavy hitters, is coming to town

One Off Hospitality’s Donnie Madia
One Off Hospitality/Brian Willette
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Since 2014, the one-day Welcome Conference has brought restaurant servers, managers, and owners to New York to hear how to improve their hospitality and workplaces. Attendees called the conference inspiring and educational, sharing those lessons with colleagues upon returning home. Now two of Chicago’s heavy hitters, Kevin Boehm (Boka Restaurant Group) and Donnie Madia (One Off Hospitality Group) are bringing the Welcome Conference to Chicago.

The conference will take place on September 23 at the Steppenwolf Theater in Lincoln Park. Boehm spoke at the conference in 2018 and Madia did in 2016. Other Chicago speakers have included Frontera’s Rick Bayless, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’s Rich Melman, and Check Please! host Alpana Singh. The September speaker lineup is forthcoming.

Singh, who is prepping to be deluged by Northwestern University graduation parties at her Evanston restaurant Terra & Vine, is excited that the conference is coming to Chicago. She thinks it provides a network of support that can change lives. Singh felt rejuvenated when after listening to Boehm’s speech — he talked about how he started in the industry. The industry — sometimes riddled by staffing and other pressures — needs to hear and share stories like these so they know they’re not all alone.

“This is a business that can tear you apart, it can leave you so lonely in the depths of the darkest places in your life where you think there’s no way out and that no one can get you out,” Singh said.

Madia and Boehm are friends with the conference’s founders, Will Guidara (Eleven Madison Park in New York), Anthony Rudolf (Per Se in New York) and co-host Brian Canlis (Canlis in Seattle). Boehm and Madia yearned to bring the conference to the Midwest to make it more accessible to restaurant workers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Initially, the event founders were reluctant to expand the conference to other cities. They were protective of their brand and wanted to ensure the conference was handled right if they were to approve a spinoff. With Madia and Boehm the conference found strong partners. One Off’s portfolio includes Blackbird and Avec in West Loop, and Boka’s includes Cabra and Momotaro in the same neighborhood.

“We’re two rivals coming together and creating something special to open the lines of communication for the front of the house,” Madia said.

Many times in the fast-paced industry, staff and management doesn’t have the time to talk about mental health and issues like how a line cook is going to get home late night after the CTA stops running. Burn out is a problem. The conference helps facilitate these types of conversations. All of this funnels into customer service and improving hospitality, the main goal of the conference.

Momofuku’s David Chang spoke at the 2017 Welcome Conference.
Welcome Conference [Official Photo]

Boehm said tickets for the Chicago conference go on sale about eight weeks before the event. He expects it to be a hot ticket as attendees for the New York event regularly snatch up all the seats in seven minutes or so. Not everyone who speaks is from the restaurant industry. For example, comedians Seth Meyers and Michael Che spoke at last year’s conference. Boehm hopes to grow Chicago’s conference in coming years. He also wants to be inclusive. This conference isn’t just for the big restaurant companies.

“It wasn’t that long ago that Donnie and I had one restaurant,” Boehm said. “Honestly, we probably needed this conference more back then than we do right now.”

Organizers are finalizing the lineup and ticket pricing. Check back for more info as the event approaches. Food & Wine first reported the news.