Rick Bayless has left his West Loop restaurants, depleting Randolph Street of one of its biggest guns. Bayless, the Oklahoma-born chef that’s made a fortune cooking and selling Mexican food, has exited Leña Brava and Cruz Blanca, the neighboring restaurants that opened in 2016. Bayless has left the restaurants to his long-time business partner, Manny Valdes. The two founded Frontera Foods, the Mexican food company known for chips, sauces, and more. They sold Frontera in 2016 to ConAgra Foods.
Leña Brava centers around cooking food over a wood fire. A restaurant aimed to showcase Bayless’s talent along Randolph Restaurant Row, where pricey mezcal sits on shelves behind the bar. Bayless and Monteverde chef Sarah Gruenenberg famously danced behind the bar celebrating their wins at the James Beard Awards gala after party.
“For me, [leaving is] super painful, super sad,” says Bayless. “I’ve always dreamed of being able to have restaurant with all wood-fired kitchen. I grew up in barbecue with all that wonderful wood flavor and everything. Every restaurant I’ve opened had a wood-fired element — to be able to do a whole wood fired kitchen was such a dream for me.”
Cruz Blanca plays the casual little sibling as a Oaxcan taqueria and brewery. While draft beer has plumetted during the pandemic, retail beer sales have helped weather the storm, says Valdes. While Valdes says “we’ve had to throw away a lot of beer,” sales at stores like Mariano’s and Whole Foods are up 50 to 60 percent. It’s not enough to offset COVID-19 related losses, but it’s slowed the bleeding.
Both Bayless and Valdes are frank about the fact that their partnership has deteriorated. Valdes wouldn’t go into specifics of how the relationship had frayed, but says they’ve been considering the change since March. The pandemic has been grueling, and for success it requires an owner-operator on premises, he says. Valdes naturally oversaw the West Loop restaurants, while Bayless focuses on River North’s Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Bar Sotano.
Bayless says he and Valdes were already moving in different directions before the pandemic hit. Then the industry was upended almost overnight, and the fissures between the two became untenable. “It [wasn’t] working for either one of us, to constantly be at loggerheads,” Bayless says. “He wanted to make decisions I wasn’t comfortable with, so we decided it’s time now... in better times maybe we would have been able to work things out, but not now — it’s just too much.”
The economics of a pandemic restaurant industry have Valdes hoping to make the Randolph Street feel more like an affordable destination for locals. Where a customer can easily come in for a glass of wine and some wood-fired oysters without a reservation. Cruz Blanco stayed open for carryout and delivery during the pandemic and Valdes says the support from West Loop neighbors has astonished him. Leña Brava’s menu will slowly add more small plates: “We really want to become a neighborhood restaurant,” Valdes says.
Bayless is not nearly so optimistic about the state of the industry in River North. Historically reliant in large part upon hotel guests in the Loop and downtown workers, his restaurants are now fighting for the same small group of diners as every other establishment in the area. Even if he could operate at full capacity indoors, the demand just isn’t there, he says. “We started off in River North 33 years ago when it was a horrible neighborhood, and we’ve helped build it into the good neighborhood that it is now,” he says. “We’re seeing that overnight it can go from one of the best neighborhoods [for restaurants] to one of the worst.”
He’s primarily concerned with his clutch of Clark Street establishments, but his other ventures have suffered too — in January, he opened Tortazo, a partnership with Filipino fast-food giant Jollibee, inside the Willis Tower. At the time, 16,000 people worked there, and it was the best address in the city for a fast-casual restaurant, according to Bayless. Six weeks later, restaurant was shut down because of the pandemic.
During the shutdown and early stages of reopening, Bayless has turned his attention to activism, in part through the Independent Restaurant Coalition. He’s among those advocating for a bipartisan bill — the RESTAURANTS Act of 2020 (Real Economic Support that Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive) — that seeks economic relief for operators sinking further into the red every day. “Every restaurateur we talk to is barely holding on,” Bayless says. “We need an influx of capital right now so we can stop losing money and start moving toward growing our business back to where we can break even.”
Valdes is of Cuban descent. Bayless’s story as becoming a cultural ambassador for Mexican food has been widely told, whether on PBS or elsewhere. The Bayless name has drawn even more attention to Randolph Street, a place where Robert DeNiro just last week opened a Chicago location of Nobu Hotel. But a big-time chef’s name can be intimidating to some customers who come in with preconceptions of what to expect, Valdes says. They may feel the restaurant is reserved only for special occasions.
Bayless and Valdes continue to work together. Valdes is a minority partner in Tortas Frontera, the fast-casual restaurants with locations inside O’Hare International Airport. In January, the concept was more or less rebranded as Tortazo. When the restaurant first opened, Bayless and company hoped to open others across the country. Valdes also is an investor in Bayless Disney World restaurant in Orlando, Florida.