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Second City Management Brings on New Restaurant Operators, Angering Veteran Workers

Longtime workers are unhappy about a takeover by Fifty/50 Restaurant Group

A sign outside a large, historic building reads “The Second City”
The owners of Roots are taking over food and beverage at Second City.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

It’s been in the works for months, but Second City — Chicago’s famous comedy troupe and theater — has officially ceded operations of its food and beverage program to the same restaurant company which runs the rooftop bar above the Old Town venue. Fifty/50 Restaurant Group will take over Second City’s in-club restaurant, 1959, and beverage operations inside the theater.

But the transition has irked some long-time staff members who were told that they’ll have to reapply for their jobs. The Tribune reports that the 90 or so bartenders, servers, hosts, and dishwashers were laid off in October, before the club was sold to ZMC in February. ZMC is a private-equity firm whose portfolio includes the makers of video games like Grand Theft Auto and NBA2K. New ownership was part of many changes for the venue last year, a year that saw a group of ex-workers and alumni demand an overhaul in the wake of allegations of gender and racial discrimination, sexual misconduct, harassment, verbal abuse, and pay inequity for workers of color.

While ZMC is the new owner, Second City’s management team — the same group that triggered the community outcry — remains in place for the most part. They gave workers like bartender John Kramer — an employee of Second City since 1981 — the impression they’d be rehired. But in March the theater announced it would reopen for in-person shows in May (the first time since the pandemic). Later that month, management emailed workers that Fifty/50 would be taking over and that they would have to reapply for their jobs. Kramer tells the Trib he is so offended that he won’t even set foot in the building again. Fifty/50, independent from Second City management, did reach out to Kramer in attempt to smooth things over, but the damage was done.

“I’ll be fine, life will go on and, presumably, the show will go on as well,” Kramer wrote earlier this month on Facebook. “What will not go on — at least for me — is the Second City Community. I will no longer be at the front bar to welcome old friends and alumni back to the theater.”

Fifty/50 co-founder Scott Weiner declined comment. Previously, he expressed support for the new owners, saying that the investment is a boon for Old Town. Besides the rooftop bar joint venture, Fifty/50 runs an outpost of its popular Roots Handmade Pizza next to Second City, inside a historic restaurant space that dates back to 1872.

Second City and Fifty/50 say former Second City workers will be given priority to be rehired, a seven-day window for interviews before the applicant pool is widened to the general public. But in truth, the pandemic has shrunk operations and there will be fewer positions. Kramer and others feel they’re being unfairly treated and point out that Second City received a $3 million federal Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loan.

Second City, is a 64-year-old Old Town icon, a space that kick-started the careers of stars like Jordan Peele and Tina Fey. The club’s new owners and Fifty/50 say employees will continue to receive some of the benefits that attracted many to the club in the first place, such as a free Second City class and discounts on future classes.

Bringing Fifty/50 in gives Second City an experienced partner that’s used to high-volume spaces, and has the flexibility to open up jobs at other venues for Second City staff. The restaurant, 1959 — named for the year the club opened — never managed to generate a buzz after opening in 2016. Many clubs and theaters have debuted food and beverage operations in order to entice customers to spend money in house rather than make reservations at off-site restaurants. It’s a strategy not that different from what the Ricketts family — the owners of the Chicago Cubs — have employed around Wrigley Field with the Hotel Zachary. Coincidentally, Fifty/50 has a small location — West Town Bakery — inside the hotel across the street from the stadium.

The Trib’s Chris Jones reports that in an unrelated move, Second City President Steve Johnston resigned Wednesday.

  • Second City fires its night staff and looks to outsource, causing a painful rift. And it loses its president. [Tribune]
  • The Second City agrees to institutional changes: ‘We are prepared to tear it all down and begin again’ [Sun-Times]
  • Second City in-person shows scheduled to resume in May [Sun-Times]

Roots Pizza Old Town

1610 N. Wells Street, Chicago, IL Visit Website