Famous Dave’s barbecue has picked a curious time to expand to Chicago, but they’ll do so this week when the restaurant debuts a delivery-only restaurant in River West. For years, the chain has operated suburban locations in places like Addison, North Riverside, and Orland Park.
Founded in 1994 by Dave Anderson, a former Chicago resident, Famous Dave’s took aspects of southern barbecue shacks — wood-paneled walls with counter service, a variety of sauces, and a smoker parked in the kitchen — and scaled it to about 130 locations across 31 states and in Canada. Branded sauces are available in grocery stores. The restaurant has also won a few awards at barbecue competitions.
Known for its ribs, in baby back and St. Louis varieties, the chain is entering the city of Chicago for the second time with an abridged greatest hits menu, says Al Hank, Famous Dave’s senior vice president of operations. The River North location at 739 N. Clark Street (now Zed451) operated in the mid-’90s.
Even before COVID-19 struck, which has more or less rendered all restaurants into virtual restaurants, the company was exploring the ghost kitchen concept; Chicago is its first. A virtual restaurant or ghost kitchen is the idea of a restaurant without a dining room that’s exclusively for online ordering. A few shared spaces have opened in recent years with mixed results. While it’s not a shared kitchen, earlier this year P.F. Chang’s opened its first to-go location. Unlike ghost kitchens, these restaurants are open for pickup.
About half of Famous Dave’s orders are phone and online, compared to 30 percent of business four to five years ago, Hank says. Third-party deliveries are “a necessary evil” and have contributed to that rise. Hank is aware of the controversies with high commissions and poor delivery drivers sometimes associated with DoorDash and Grubhub.
Dine-in restaurants in Illinois have been closed since March 17 and will remain shuttered until at least April 30 thanks to the extended stay-at-home order. In mid-March, Hank says “revenues fell off the cliff.” He describes the company’s fiscal picture of the restaurant as stable. The pandemic has Famous Dave’s exploring several options to help keep the brand relevant, relying on marketing.
“The fact that we’re opening a restaurant is rather unique,” Hank adds.
That holds especially true in an urban market like Chicago where real estate and higher minimum wage makes it more expensive for restaurants to operated versus a suburb. Famous Dave’s has brought in experienced workers for the ghost kitchen, including a well-tenured franchisee, Elliot Baum, who runs 15 locations. Two or three people will be working at a time inside the Chicago location. They won’t need a lot of labor, and it gives customers peace of mind when it comes to safety.
There are several locations near the Chicago kitchen, it would be easy to swap out items, Hank says. So if longtime fans see something missing online and they get enough feedback, Famous Dave’s could begin offering them.
Of course, the concept also serves as a trial balloon. If the virtual kitchen generates high sales, there’s more incentive to open a dine-in restaurant in the future in Chicago. So far, a spokesperson hasn’t shared what day Famous Dave’s will open, so stay tuned for an update.
Famous Dave’s, River West ghost kitchen, opening the week of April 27.