One of the East Coast’s most celebrated bakeries will be opening a location later this year on Randolph Restaurant Row. Levain Bakery is best known for its enormous and gooey cookies, considered some of the best in New York (and also available in frozen form in supermarkets across the country), but its owners hope that Chicagoans will come to embrace it as a neighborhood spot, a place to gather and a source of bread and other baked goods, like muffins and scones, that are not cookies.
“We definitely try to be more than a cookie place,” says co-founder Connie McDonald.
Levain has already expanded beyond the original bakery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — it has 11 locations, including two in D.C. and one in Boston — but this will be its first outpost beyond the East Coast. McDonald and her business partner, Pam Weekes, have had their eyes on Chicago for a while. They’re taking over the former Maude’s Liquor Bar space at 840 W. Randolph Street, and the neighborhood, they say, suits them perfectly, with its mix of office workers, tourists, full-time residents, and, of course, other restaurants: over the years, Randolph, once packed with locally owned spots, has become home to many national brands, including the McDonald’s world headquarters. Maude’s, a two-floor bar and restaurant that lasted nine years under Brendon Sodikoff’s Hogsalt Hospitality, closed in October 2020.
Levain has taken over both floors, though customers will only be allowed at street level. There won’t be any indoor seating, but customers are welcome to linger and lean on the counter and drink coffee and eat bread or pastry and chat with workers or watch the action in the open kitchen. “We want people to see us making things in the kitchen,” says Weekes. “It’s very satisfying to make something and see people eating and enjoying it.”
McDonald and Weekes first met in a swimming pool nearly 30 years ago when they were training for a triathlon. They began baking their enormous six-ounce cookies loaded with chocolate chips and walnuts to help with carbo-loading. By 1995, they found themselves the owners of a small retail bakery where they baked and sold bread — hence the bakery’s name. Business was slow until one day McDonald decided to make a batch of their old training cookies, just for fun, and they sold out immediately. Notoriety followed.
“It’s big enough to share,” says Weekes, explaining the Levain cookie’s appeal. “It’s crunchy on the outside and ooey-gooey on the inside. It’s very gooey even when it’s not piping hot. In addition to flavors, textures are very important.” The cookies now come in five flavors, including peanut butter chip and oatmeal raisin.
The two founders had always intended to sell their cookies in grocery stores, but it took them nearly 20 years to figure out a formula. They decided the best solution would be a frozen bake-at-home model, which would, in addition to giving customers the “ooey-gooey” experience of the original, also make their kitchens smell good, just like a bakery. But although the frozen cookies, now available at Whole Foods, use the same recipe, they’re approximately a third of the size of the original. Even McDonald and Weekes have to concede it’s not quite the same.
In Chicago, McDonald and Weekes will continue Levain’s practice of donating the proceeds from the first day in a new location to a local nonprofit and giving away unsold baked goods to local food pantries, though the recipients have yet to be chosen. McDonald also hints that they may be designing a special only-in-Chicago treat, just as they created a cranberry scone for the new Boston location.
Opening day itself also remains an uncertainty. They’re aiming for late summer, but admit that equipment and permit delays may push it back.
“I like those two words ‘coming soon,’” says McDonald. “We’re not making promises we can’t keep.”
Levain Bakery Chicago, 840 W. Randolph Street, scheduled to open late summer 2022.