Jason Lerner

Masa Azul

02/17/2015

Jason Lerner is the owner of Masa Azul in Logan Square.

Every year a small group goes down to Jalisco, Mexico, to travel and tour, see different types of distilleries, the culture, and so on. And I hadn’t been. After doing this for all this time, the one big missing link was I had never been in a tequila distillery. I had been to Jalisco a million times, but I had never been to tequila country. I went the first week in December.

It was a lot less about the consuming of it and more about learning, seeing the process and meeting people who are doing agave spirits. We went to Patrón, we saw the biggest of the big. We also saw an eighty-something year old guy distilling some agave from a Filipino-style still. Just him. You see the dichotomy of what’s going on. They all produce these agaves but the differences are amazing. I got back from that really enriched.

It was like that for me when I was a wine buyer. When I finally got to Napa and Sonoma, to actually walk through a vineyard and touch a plant, and see how they did things. You’ve heard it, you’ve read about it, but when you actually see it, and smell it, and touch it--- that light goes on.

Two weeks in Mexico, in December? Yeah, I can handle that. [laughs]

My mom was a server for a long time. When we were little she was working two, three nights a week, weekends mainly, bartending at a neighborhood place in Harwood Heights. I was always hearing her talk about the business, and mostly in not a great way. Horror stories, this and that and the other thing.

In college I studied finance, but it was always in the back of my mind: someday after I make all this money, I’m gonna open a restaurant. Graduated college in ‘96 and got a job as a stockbroker. I did that for a little while and hated it. After a couple years kind of fiddling around, doing a couple of different jobs, bouncing around a little, I said, “This is the time, I want to get in the restaurant business.” My mom was like, “Are you crazy? After all I’ve told you, you want to do this?”

My dad has a buddy that owned a restaurant called The Noodle Café, and he was opening a second location in Glenview. A pasta, seafood place. The original one is still there, in Wilmette. My dad said, “If you really want to, go talk to my friend. See if he’ll give you any job, see if you can learn the business.” My parents are the most amazing, supportive people, but my dad’s always been very much on the path, and he said, “You’ve got to get this right, you can’t afford any more false starts in your career.” And I was like, twenty-three, twenty-four, saying “I’m screwing up!” [laughs]

I went and talked to my dad’s friend, Rob and his wife, and told them that I was interested in learning the business. I accepted a job not knowing what I’d be doing, how much I’d be making, nothing. I just knew it was an interesting opportunity. We opened that fall, it was the fall of ‘98. They manufactured a management training program for me even though it was a small business and it really didn’t exist, they did it for me, and I was very grateful.

They put me through a rotation: I served a little bit, I bartended a little bit, I washed dishes a couple times. I never cooked, that would have been bad. I rotated through and after a few months they made me an assistant manager, and the next year I was working under the GM and taking on as much responsibility as he would give me. He was tiring of the business so he kept pushing things my way. And I kept taking and taking, really aggressively.

A year later they made me GM, I was twenty-six. I did the buying. It was a pasta and seafood place, very wine focused. We had a full bar but it was mostly wine, so I started digging in, learning about wine, which I fell in love with, still love wine. Running that restaurant, we were there for ten years, I was GM for most of it, and at the end my old boss had an opportunity.

He was from Wilmette, and a historic building had opened up. It was the old train depot building, a beautiful spot. He wanted to do something with it. Me and chef Alvaro Chavez--- the guy I opened Masa Azul with--- decided to do a Latin-American, Mexican concept there called Depot Nuevo. That was the first time I got to open a restaurant. I was on the opening staff of The Noodle, but I wasn’t part of the buildout or the conceptualization.

I didn’t know a whole lot. We had to do a new bar here, a tequila bar. So I went about picking some tequilas, a lot of them were bigger names but I put together a small list of tequilas and that was a good start. Now I’ve got to make cocktails, I haven’t really done that. While our wine program was really cool at the other place, our cocktails were--- we were making cosmos, it was the early 2000s.

How do I make a margarita, a really good margarita? Fresh ingredients, squeeze a lime? I started going to places, I went to Frontera Grill, Salpicón, all these places, tasting margaritas, learning about what’s up. I tried to reverse engineer. I came across a guy named Mike Morales, out in Albuquerque. I sent him an email, he wrote back right away, and took me under his wing. I call him my Tequila Sensei.

Once, he was doing a big tasting event in Albuquerque and he invited me to be a judge. It was a huge honor for me, to be among people that were over my head, as far as I was concerned. With their knowledge, really soaking that up. The thing about these spirits, which is so cool being a wine guy, the spirit that has a terrior like wine does. Tequila, mezcal, they show a sense of place like wine does.

I got in the business when I was twenty-four, and the one thing you never understand until you actually do it is the jump from running someone else’s restaurant to running your own. That leap doesn’t seem like a big one, but it’s an enormous. It was like, “Holy shit, now I have no one to blame, I can’t wash my hands of anything that happens here.”

The nuts and bolts you can prepare for, but the emotions and the stress and the fears and the joys, you can’t. I was naive when I first started at The Noodle, I told my boss, “Yeah, I think I want to work here a year, maybe a year and a half, then I’m gonna open a place.” And he kind of chuckled. I asked why we was laughing and he said, “You’ll see.” And I worked for him for thirteen years.

My uncle owns this space, he bought this in ‘98. It was an old hardware store. He bought the whole building, he was gonna put a restaurant here but at the time it was a little early for the neighborhood, he wasn’t ready so he ended up opening Penny’s in Wicker Park. I always told him, “If anybody makes an offer on this place give me right of first refusal, I really like this spot. Someday I’d like to open a place here.”

It was a natural progression. We had talked about opening a restaurant forever, we joked about this forever but we should actually do this. It’s time. Alvaro’s from Mexico, he knew Mexican food, we can put this together. I’d learned a lot about the spirits. This stretch of Diversey, there was not much going on here but I had faith because my uncle had always been able to pick spots like the original Penny’s. That was an odd choice of location at the time, and I had faith in his long-term thoughts on what was gonna happen in the neighborhood.

When we opened Masa Azul, no one knew who we were, we had no star power. We had an idea, we had a dream of doing something cool. We didn’t open day one with a line out the door. We opened on a Tuesday, and four tables walked in. [laughs] Well, there you go.

One thing I knew--- I built the cocktails at Depot, and margaritas, they’re fantastic, they’re easy, they’re fresh. But I’m not a mixologist, and I wanted to take the cocktail thing to the next level, as far as expressing agave spirits. One of the biggest early decisions, that still resonates: I happened to meet this girl named Jenny Kessler, who was a brand ambassador for Hum, a locally-produced spirit, when she came to Depot Nuevo.

We got to talking, I ask where she lives, she says Logan Square. I filed that one away. And after we left several months later to open up here, the next person I called was Jenny. “I’m building a restaurant, would you be interested in consulting on the agave spirits?” And she was like, “Yeah, I’d love to help.”

She built the cocktail program, she very quickly became the bar director, and that became the first thing we were known for, our cocktail program. She won the RedEye Best Bartender competition in our first year. We were a nobody and she beat several high-end, River North restaurants, we won this thing with the Tour de Mexico cocktail, which is back on the menu now.

She was prolific, producing amazing agave cocktails for the first two years she was here. Her influence on Masa Azul was tremendous, and still is. When we opened this place, from the very get go the one constant we’ve had here was that, the agave spirits. It’s changed, we’ve gotten a lot more mezcal heavy, but those Mexican spirits were always the focal point. When I rebooted the program, I went back to a greatest hits menu. Some of those drinks are mine, some of them are hers, this is our history, you know?

When we first opened Masa Azul we were gonna go with more upscale, Southwestern food. We had a great chef but we realized that food wasn’t really what we wanted to do, I felt uncomfortable with it. For a restaurant to reboot, and survive that as a small business, it’s not easy. We were doing the Southwestern thing and I said, “You know, I really want this place to be true to Mexico, really true in the food and the spirit of it and everything.”  When we hired Jonathan Zaragoza, when Jenny and I found him, he was recommended to us by Abe Conlon from Fat Rice, and he was a huge part of bringing that vision back in line.

It was exciting because when we found Jon, he came in and refocused us food-wise. He’s a great, creative young chef, he wanted to explore, eventually he needed to make the next step too. I had pushed myself out of the creative process too much. I have to be the person that is guiding the ship in the direction I want Masa Azul to go. I realized that the continuity of this business is me, I’m the one thing that’s always here. It’s hard because I’m pretty low key, I don’t like to toot my horn too much, I like to toot other people’s horns for them.

You want to nurture that creativity but at the same time you have to stay focused on the vision. I started zoning in on what exactly is that vision. Being super true to street food, Mexican street food, super true to these spirits. We’re a neighborhood place, it’s not a place where we’re doing an new menu every month, or we’re changing things all the time.

And having a menu, a neighborhood-y tequila bar, Mexican food, street food menu, yeah it grows and it evolves but you always have that base of things that are great, that people love, people come back for. People come in because they love the baja shrimp tacos, they’re gonna sit down and say, “Oh, I can also try this, this and this.” But if they can’t get the thing that they love, they’re disappointed.

Getting back behind the bar full time, running the program, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s hard work, and I also have to do all the other owner things that have to happen. But it’s amazing because I feel like when I’m bartending I can actually be part of that experience, and talk about the things I want to talk about. That’s what I did at Depot Nuevo too. I went back behind the bar and it made a huge difference.

This has been a huge thought process for me. What is Masa Azul? What are we? Are we a mom and pop store? Yeah, actually. I would have never said that before but as I thought about it, yeah that’s absolutely 100% what this is. It’s my wife and me, it’s my parents, it’s family. It’s not a faceless thing. I’m trying to express my love for Mexico, the culture, the food, the spirits.

We close at eleven, but if it’s five after and someone walks in that door, and they want to sit at my bar and have a drink, I’m gonna serve them a drink, and I’m gonna appreciate that. I’m not gonna be like “No, I’m sorry, we’re closed.” Because it’s me here. If it’s snowing, if it’s terrible out, someone might walk three blocks through this, I’m not gonna tell them we’re closed. I feel a lot of places forget that part, that appreciation.

It’s such a cool feeling. Having people come back regularly, support you, they’ll bring friends in, continue to try and grow it that way. We’ll have nights like last night, where it’s packed and it’s amazing. I love it because the energy is so high. But it’s really the weekdays where you can dig in with people, get to know people.

Nights like last night, it’s high volume and you’re banging it out. You’re making people happy but you have less time to connect in a deeper way. On a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday night, when it’s a little quieter, that’s when you can actually have those conversations. But you’ve got to have those crazy, busy nights to support yourself too. If you could remove the money aspect of the business, it would be so much more fun.

If making people happy, changing someone’s day was payment enough, then this would be even more fun. In this business if you don’t love people, love working with people, and love making people happy--- it’s that spirit of hospitality that gets lost.

Masa Azul is this world we’ve created. I’m the ringleader, but at the same time everyone has played a role, a big role in some cases, in moving us forward. Without Jenny, I don’t know if we’re here. Without Jon we don’t get to that next level. We don’t have a guy in the kitchen now, Jay, who trained under Jon and is kicking ass. At first it was hard for me to get to that point.

People are going to come and go, but it’s cool to see people grow, seeing the people that’ve worked for you go on to do big things. As I’ve matured I’ve really started to take a lot of pride in seeing that.

Masa Azul