When the COVID-19 pandemic closed indoor dining, Wicker Park hot spot Big Star expanded on its already spacious outdoor patio by adding a tent in front with seating for about 120. It wound up being so popular and useful that the restaurant is now creating a solar-powered permanent addition around the same size.
“I was blown away because I was always the one who said the whole thing about Big Star is it’s open to the sun and that’s what people want,” says Terry Alexander, partner at One Off Hospitality, which owns Big Star. “But 85 percent of the people wanted to sit underneath the shade as opposed to being out in the sun.”
Expected to be completed by fall, the new covered space in the current to-go area will also make life easier for Big Star’s managers, who Alexander said used to closely monitor the weather on their phones.
“When it rains, that tent would save us because all of a sudden you had 120 people eating and drinking that wanted to move inside where there was no room,” Alexander says. “That was just chaos for the first 12 years. Once we had that tent out, we said we have to continue so that people don’t get interrupted in the middle of their meal.”
Solar panels from Chicago company Windfree Solar will be placed on the new structure as well as the front of Big Star’s current building. They will power the entire new addition and hopefully contribute to the electricity needs of the main restaurant.
“One of our values at One Off Hospitality is kindness to the environment,” Alexander says. “My partner, Paul Kahan, has been all about sourcing, sustainability, and working with the farmers for the past 25 years. We’ve moved away from plastic bags and we’re recycling to-go containers. But we’re always trying to do a little bit more and be proactive in that area.”
Big Star managing partner Marc Hellner already has solar panels at his house, and Alexander said he hopes the project will inspire more businesses and customers to consider the technology.
“We see it as a win-win,” Alexander said. “It helps our finances so we can invest more in the restaurant and our teams, and then it helps the environment.”
The idea for solar panels first arose when One Off discussed a new building project that would have brought Big Star to the suburbs. That expansion was scrapped, but they hung onto the idea, revisiting it now that the restaurant group is looking to refresh some of its concepts after limited investment during the pandemic. The team had considered adding a green roof to the space but decided the solar panels made more sense.
“There were pros and cons to both of them, but we just thought that it would be difficult to maintain the grasses and plants up there in the Chicago winters,” Alexander explained. “We thought it would look great for a while, but would need constant maintenance. It’s hard enough to run a restaurant and we just thought it would be a little bit too much for everybody.”
If the project goes well, One Off Hospitality plans to add solar panels to more of its properties starting with Publican Quality Bread later this year. One Off owns the building that houses the bakery from James Beard Award-winner Greg Wade, making it an easy second location for the technology.
“Talking to the teams, everybody really is on board for this so we said let’s try to make this part of all of our plans moving forward,” Alexander said. “We want to wait and see how well they work if we have to play around with them a little if there’s maintenance or anything, but we’re very hopeful.”
The work is being handled by Joe Buehler from Present Future Architects, who previously built Big Star Mariscos. The new space will have the same chairs, tables, and speakers as the rest of Big Star, but it can be blocked off to host private events for about 100 people.
The expanded outdoor area that Big Star used during COVID lockdowns will likely be converted into a gaming area to provide a side of entertainment with servings of whiskey and tacos.
“We’re going to talk with the staff and the guests to see what they would like,” Alexander said. “It’ll be something simple, anything from ping-pong to horseshoes.”