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Obama Presidential Center Wants a Restaurant Partner for the South Side

The center will include a casual restaurant and a grab-and-go cafe

President Barack Obama speaks in September 2018 during the groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

A Chicago restaurant could have a special opportunity on the city’s South Side thanks to the Obama Foundation. Construction on the Obama Center began in late 2021 and will include a museum, nature paths, and a library all devoted to telling the story of America’s first Black president and former first lady Michelle Obama.

The foundation is looking for a hospitality company to manage a restaurant, cafe, and handle catering at the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. In addition, the partner would plan educational programming at a teaching kitchen and onsite fruit and vegetable garden.

The restaurants would open alongside the rest of the center in 2025. The foundation released a request for proposal last week which described the restaurant “as a casual eatery with either a counter-service model or a hybrid-service model” with a menu that includes “a wide variety of diverse offerings that reflect the Foundation’s values.”

The restaurant would seat 75 to 90 people indoors, another 45 to 60 outdoors, and allow room for another 64 in overflow spaces.

The request describes the cafe with seating for 70 to 90 diners indoors with room for another 24 in a courtyard. The cafe would offer grab-and-go items like pastries, salads, and sandwiches. Beverages include coffee, wine, and beer.

Established restaurant companies that have had success with larger venues will be considered. The foundation is looking for companies that have been around for at least five years and have “ideally” done a “minimum of $5 million in average annual revenues for the last five years.” The foundation hopes to pick a food and beverage partner by June.

The Obama Center provides a unique opportunity for a restaurant group due to the number of tourists expected to visit. Among restaurant groups Eater has spoken to, there’s differing opinions on what type of a company will earn the contract. The foundation may opt for a local company that specializes in restaurants. Another option would be a food service company that operates inside arenas. A few companies have experience in both spheres, such as Levy. There’s optimism that restaurant groups will invest more in the South and West sides instead of finding real estate in another North Side neighborhood.

“The OPC will be a home for recreation, engagement, storytelling, and story making, and will include a collection of public buildings, a plaza, walkways, and other spaces designed to communicate the message that all are invited here to learn, convene, converse, collaborate, and create,” the request reads.

Joshua Harris, the foundation’s director of community engagement, told Crain’s that they’re looking to create “a dining experience that celebrates the role of food in our culture and communities.”

The foundation met with about 50 restaurant owners in October at a meeting organized by the Illinois Restaurant Association. Harris also told Crain’s they’ve met with about 100 restaurants over the last two months.

The Obamas have cherished America’s restaurants. Before entering the Oval Office, Barack Obama even appeared on an infamous episode of WTTW Chicago’s Check, Please! He’s also appeared with Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. One area of concern is if pizza will appear. Obama has been diplomatic in his preference for New York-style pizza over Chicago deep dish, though he has a soft spot for tavern style. However, Michelle Obama, the true native Chicagoan — who happened to be in town for her book tour earlier this weekhas been upfront with her love of deep dish and Gino’s East.

This center is meant to unite, not divide.