New York’s Levain Bakery, best known for its giant and gooey cookies, is opening its first Chicago location this weekend inside the former Maude’s Liquor Bar space in the West Loop. This is Levain’s first expansion that goes beyond the east coast.
So what’s a cookie retailer doing along Randolph Restaurant Row, a strip once reserved for, well, restaurants?
“We’re really excited about the West Loop. It’s such an exciting food neighborhood. There’s so many iconic brands, restaurants, and people there,” says co-owner Pam Weekes.
Weekes and Connie McDonald opened Levain in 1995, and the business has grown particularly rapidly in the past three years, expanding from three locations to 11 spread across New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Weekes says they’ve searched Chicago for space for a long time, but were patient for the perfect location, adding that they’re “not opening stores just to open stores.”
Meanwhile, Levain plans to open in Los Angeles early next year and is also looking at locations in the Gulf Coast and Chicago neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and River North. Lines routinely stretched out the door at their original bakery before the company began expanding.
“Pretty much everything that we opened during the pandemic, we had really started before that all happened or it would’ve been a lot harder,” says Weekes.
Levain sees Chicago potentially as a hub for their e-commerce business, shipping boxes of cookies around the country from the Midwest. It’s cheaper to send cookies to the west coast from Chicago compared to the east coast. But the focus, right now, is local customers.
“It’s great to be able to get the cookies from the store into people’s hands hot out of the oven,” Weekes says. “We’ve got an open kitchen so you can see everybody working. We want the customers to feel like they are part of the whole process.”
McDonald and Weekes first developed the recipe for the giant cookies that made their bakery famous when carb-loading for a triathlon. The treats continue to be popular with racers in New York and Boston, and they expect the shop to do plenty of business around the Chicago Marathon which usually takes place in October.
The opening of the new location coincides with the debut of Levain’s latest seasonal cookie flavor, dark chocolate peppermint, which adds to the year-round options of chocolate chip walnut, chocolate chip, dark chocolate peanut butter chip, and oatmeal raisin. The mint chips feature red and white swirls that resemble candy canes without the crunch. “Not only is it delicious, but it’s really beautiful,” McDonald says.
Beyond cookies, Levain also sells a small menu of other baked goods such as blueberry muffins, oatmeal raisin scones, and three types of brioche. The Chicago location has partnered with Backlot Coffee to make Levain’s first special blend.
“As we all know, people are very particular about their coffee,” Weekes says. “We wanted to have something that was good with everything that we make and would be enjoyable to all of our customers.”
At the end of each business day, Levain donates all its unsold products to Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. They will also be giving all of the proceeds from their opening day on November 19 to Lyte Collective, a Chicago group that helps young adults impacted by poverty and homelessness.
“We’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I don’t think that the need for food has ever diminished,” Weekes says. “We’ve always worked with local organizations and schools on a regular basis to donate to events, whether it be a box of cookies or a gift certificate, whatever we can do. We want to be a business that contributes to life around us.”
The space is decorated with a mural from the University of Illinois at Chicago graduate Libby VanderPloeg, who creates custom illustrations for Levain’s stores and cookie boxes. The art depicts cookies hidden amidst images of city landmarks such as the Garfield Park Conservatory and Museum of Contemporary Art and famous Chicagoans including Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
“Our customers have so much fun with (the murals), trying to see where they are and posing for selfies in front of them,” says McDonald.
Levain Bakery, 840 W. Randolph St., opening Saturday, November 19.