Saturday marks the start of a new chapter for Mindy Segal, the esteemed chef behind Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, as she prepares to close her 15-year-old restaurant and replace it with a bakery. Hot Chocolate is a perennial favorite in Bucktown, known for its signature hot chocolates with giant marshmallows, burgers, and late-night dessert service — a Chicago rarity.
When Segal started her career as a pastry chef in the ‘90s, she knew only one path: to eventually open a full-service restaurant. Fast-casual restaurants had yet to emerge, and the market was narrow. She yearned for a place to showcase her baked goods. On Saturday, Segal will begin selling bagels and smears. She’ll later add other items like cookies, challah, and matzah ball soup. The name of the new project is Mindy’s American Bakery. Segal says she’s “ecstatic” about the changes, which will come in phases.
Weekend brunch reservations booked quickly as Segal was known for using top-quality ingredients from local farms and vendors. That ethos may be the standard now, but it wasn’t in 2005 when Hot Chocolate debuted. The success drew attention to Bucktown, a once sleepy neighborhood that’s since turned into a dining and drinking destination neighboring Wicker Park. The restaurant also proved that Segal had talents that went beyond sweet treats.
The bakery will offer bagels, coffee, and other pantry items (and hot chocolate). While many restaurants are changing business models or closing because of the pandemic, that’s not the case here, according to Segal. Her plans to close were in motion before the pandemic. Her bakery inside Revival Food Hall in the Loop was a test, to see if the business could be successful without her handling both kitchen duties and operations. She’s been thinking about converting to a bakery for two years, and had picked May 31 as Hot Chocolate’s final day earlier this year.
Still, with the mass closures, the timing was right. The efforts of staff in the Loop and Bucktown, including those of chef Bo Durham, convinced Segal closing the restaurant and opening a bakery would save money.
“You know what’s great about all of this?” Segal says. “We get to start things all over again, to do things with intention and figure what’s important.”
Segal and friends started clearing out the restaurant a few days ago. Current social distancing rules have restaurant owners thinking about how seating will be different. In Georgia, where dine-in restaurants are back open, tables need at least six feet of separation. With that thinking, Segal doesn’t have much use for a large dining room. In fact, she’s thinking of moving operations next door to the former home of Presidio which is a smaller space.
Regardless of the space, Segal wants to a showplace for Eastern European, French, Italian, and Middle Eastern, and other baking traditions. Bagel paninis, and chicken matzah ball soup are some of items on the menu. Once the bakery is up and running, Segal vows to have matzah ball soup every day. She and Durham have fond memories of eating bowls while in New York at Russ & Daughters Cafe. It was an overcast and rainy day, much like Wednesday in Chicago, Segal says. The soup was exactly what she needed.
“In these times, we need to be comforted and we need to feel good,” Segal says. “It’s the epitome of comfort food.”
But it won’t be just like the bakery at Revival, the general store will hopefully bring in customers on a regular basis for groceries and specialty baking items. Segal and Durham are still figuring out what items the pantry will carry. One item is butter churned on premises. Taking a book out of other restaurants turned to stores, like Fat Rice and Bar Biscay’s pivots, they’ll offer fresh produce like strawberries from Mick Klug Farm. The dining room will get use again. Every Friday night, Segal envisions hosting a non-religious Shabbat-style dinner. She invited notable guest chefs to make meals where customers could mingle. Segal suggests intiving invite Bill Kim (Urban Belly) or Jason Vincent (Giant) over as a guest chef.
Segal wants to open more bakeries/coffee shops across the city. She also runs a marijuana edibles business. The bakery will free up time so she can put more energy toward that.
“The truth is I’m older, I’m wiser, and I’m a bit more business savvy after 15 years of owning my own business,” she says.
Mindy’s Bakery, 1747 N. Damen Avenue, bagels and coffee service start Saturday.