Mayor Lori Lightfoot says that Chicago is one of America’s top cities for food companies, and she delivered that message to a crowd inside Dom’s Kitchen & Market earlier this week in Old Town. The mayor praised the grocery chain for connecting entrepreneurs within the food sector, providing them with hundreds of opportunities.
Food tech is another niche within that sector, blurring the line between restaurant and silicon. A new endeavor, called Entree, is taking that approach to heart in the South Loop, where a group of entrepreneurs has taken over the former home of Michelin-starred Acadia.
The previous tenant’s fine dining success hasn’t impacted Entree’s ownership group. Even though there’s ample space and a comfortable dining room inside, in-person dining isn’t Entree’s priority.
“We think the South Loop was a place that would use some really fun and exciting dining options,” Entree co-owner Jason Weingarten says.
Entree is an ambitious meal kit company powered by an app with ownership that hopes some dining habits developed during the pandemic will remain permanent. They sell kits with paella, steak, and tacos. The food is categorized into seasonal themes: Gameday (sliders, Buffalo chicken dip), Orale (Mexican; mole de Coloradito with tortillas), and Holiday Harvest (buttermilk brined turkey breast, truffle mashed potatoes).
Unlike a traditional restaurant with a printed menu, the Entree team says they have more flexibility to jump on trends like butter boards with fresh sourdough loaves to quickly adapt to what customers may crave. The average meal for two costs about $29, according to management. Entree uses the tagline “box to table, 20 minutes or less,” referring to the prep work needed before customers can eat. Entree has expanded into desserts with a pastry chef who worked at Lost Larson. They’re even offering wine pairings for malted-chocolate cakes and other sweets.
“We keep doing what will make patrons most happy,” Weingarten says. “Our goal is able to provide food and value.”
Weingarten comes from the tech sector. He founded Yello, a college recruitment platform. Coming from outside the hospitality world, they needed someone with experience. They found Alex Carnovale, an industry veteran who’s worked locally at Bellemore in West Loop and the vaunted French Laundry near Napa, California. Entree has given him a better work-life balance, and he’s excited about Entree’s potential expansion in other cities. The goal, as Weingarten says, is to connect customers with delicious, to build a platform akin to a video-streaming service that can push viewing suggestions into a feed based on past viewing history. Entree wants to predict what customers crave for dinner. That app asks its users questions to form a profile. It even asks what food celebrities customers prefer. For example, is the customer more like Samin Nosrat or David Chang?
Entree’s co-founder and co-CEO, Jon Bell, has experience with successful user interfaces as a product lead at Netflix. Food companies, including delivery services, have struggled with building intuitive platforms that customers actually want to use. They’re positioning Entree as a competitor to third-party delivery. The latter has little control over the actual delivery. Entree can control the experience, and Bell sees the company as the “future of food” where “it’s more about the convenience to the consumer.”
The pandemic, and the suspension of indoor dining, showed that customers missed fancy plating and other aspects of fine dining so much that they filled Instagram with photos of amateur home chefs trying to recreate the experience at home. Smyth, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Fulton Market tapped into the niche with a to-go meal that came with instructions on how to recreate the pretty presentations they serve. Management at Alinea encouraged those who ordered to-go meals from the three-Michelin-starred restaurant to post photos on social media.
With the terrain changed, Entree sees an opportunity. The meats and produce are from noted vendors like Slagel Family Farm, brands that restaurants and grocery stores use to bolster credibility. Carnovale says his industry colleagues have visions of a “ghost kitchen as some kind of faceless business.” And some, especially those fronted by delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash, are exactly that — armed with market data and designed to steal business from traditional restaurants. For Entree, the IT portion isn’t a soulless way to interact with customers, but it’s a way to improve hospitality. Bell cares about environmental impact and reducing carbon footprints.
Beyond honing on TikTok trends, Bell and Weingarten have been actively seeking input on community forums, such as the Hello South Loop Facebook group. Earlier this summer, public demand led Entree to create picnic baskets. After hearing how residents missed the bar burgers at Acadia, they held a burger night in August.
Though some fear the meal kit bubble has burst with folks returning to pre-pandemic dining habits, the Entree team feels their building something different. They’ve been ecstatic with the response. Weingarten says they’ll continue to prioritize convenience, hospitality, and deliciousness.
“And we’ll keep on launching more menus with great variety,” he says.