Art Jackson

Pleasant House Bakery

02/20/2015

Art Jackson and his wife Chelsea own Pleasant House Bakery in Bridgeport, as well as a sister restaurant and brewery in Three Oaks, Michigan.

What’s the story behind your house-made ginger fizz?

It’s based on Grandma Jackson’s ginger beer that I grew up drinking. She would chop up fresh ginger and lemon, boil it, add sugar, dump it into a ceramic pickle crock and put it in the closet. She would make a piece of toast and sprinkle it with yeast—there’s also cream of tartar in the ginger tea—and then she’d let it hang out. It’s like a beer, it would ferment slightly. We grew up drinking that.

My grandma and grandpa lived in England most of the time, they would travel back and forth; they had a house over here, so they would stay for a month or two at a time, and that’s where the whole English influence came from. They’d bring over Smarties and Cadburys and all that.

You’ve mentioned before that opening a restaurant without a growing space never entered your mind. Why?

Chelsea and I both came from rural backgrounds. I’m from rural Illinois, about an hour west of Chicago in Kane County; and Chelsea from the middle of Kansas. Farms weren't inspiring—they were all corn and soybeans and stuff, but we grew up with gardening families. Gardening was always a part of our chores and part of our dinner table. It was ingrained in us.

I remember times when I was a kid, where I was eating sugar snap peas off the vine, and picking currants and puckering like, “Oh my god, these are so sour! They’re crazy!” I remember those moments, but I didn’t set out to say, “I’m gonna be a gardener or a farmer, or I’m gonna have a restaurant that has a garden.” It became a part of my fabric; a part of my being and stuck with me as I went through life experiencing other things.

I knew I wanted to be a chef, I knew I wanted to have my own restaurant; Chelsea felt the same. We started formulating our ideas for a restaurant. And that restaurant—our very first business plan—was actually for a wood oven pizza place, this wood-fired hearth where we can serve our pizzas—that would be the focus, but then have these farm fresh things around it from our own garden. We also thought about barbecue, a little corner store, you know. And lo and behold, we settled on a pie shop. It would of course have a gardening component to it; it would have an urban farm component to it.

Just a couple blocks down the street, there’s a place called UrbanLab architecture. Our friends Martin and Sarah live and work with that property, so the season before we opened they allowed us to build some cold frames on their property. When we opened in May of 2011, we walked down to UrbanLab and picked our lettuce and our herbs and all that, and had what was an inspiration to us literally reflected on the plate and on our menu. From day one, we served our own produce.

So those things that were a part of us growing up, that we may have taken for granted, were always with us. They are part of the formula of what we have now.

Are there other benefits to urban farming beyond the produce itself?

We have a community-granted space with a couple of friends in Pilsen, roughly 18th and Racine, near Beurrage bakery. I know Jeffrey Hallenbeck over at Beurrage, and was even thinking this year we might be able to approach him and say, “We can custom grow some things for you.” And then all of a sudden our garden becomes something more—it’s community-based, it’s open to the neighbors, everything. We have parties there, or barbecues, and kids from the neighborhood will come and hang out. But we can also connect it to other businesses that are like-minded. So, if we could grow lavender, Beurrage might incorporate it into something.

The farm is not intended to be a very profitable-type thing at this stage in the game. In fact, we hope that it might end up being non-for-profit because of all the diverse ways that we are able to connect to the community: connecting homegrown food to the community, introducing kids to what the vegetable looks like when it’s growing, how to pick it, what it tastes like when it’s raw. Introducing a chef to it, saying, “Chef, what would you like from this garden that’s a block away from you?”

Do you have more than one growing space in the city?

Yes. There’s the Pilsen garden, and UrbanLab, the space that’s just two blocks from Pleasant House on 31st. Our largest space is at The Plant Chicago. We have currently about 2,000 square-feet of outdoor space, and this year, with our new farm director Jonathan Scheffel we’ve started about a 100 square-foot indoor growing space. We’ve got pea shoots and some tomato plant clones. It’s an experiment that’s turned into something viable, that can be expanded upon. Jonathan also set up a bicycle-powered home compost collection service. Connecting all the dots, creating these loops where you have stuff coming in and stuff going out and stuff being recycled.

In fact, scraps collected from Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, Pilsen, even as far as River North, are deposited at Nature’s Little Recyclers, a vermicomposting plant in Back of the Yards. They have about two million worms, and they’ll eat all the food scraps, and then those food scraps get turned into worm castings, or soil that can be used for our garden, our neighbors garden, our community’s garden.

Why did you choose Bridgeport?

Our first thought was that we would open in Pilsen. I moved to Pilsen in 1997, I have lived there most of the time I have lived in Chicago. In 1997 there wasn’t a place like Pleasant House. I thought, what better place to start than in my own neighborhood? I was much younger, had much less resources… but I did have a business plan, and I did have great ideas.

For one reason or another, nothing really panned out. I looked at lots of properties. I became close with UrbanLab, who was based in Pilsen at that time. They were my go-to—whenever I thought I would find a location, they would come and look at it, we’d crunch the numbers and do some planning.

Fast forward to five years ago; UrbanLab had moved to Bridgeport. I had put my business aspirations on hold, I’d been at it a lot, really trying to find a place to open. I decided to focus on other things, I just kind of put it on the back burner. Then Sarah called me from UrbanLab and said, “Hey, I haven’t talked to you in a while. How do you feel about Bridgeport?” It’s neighbors to Pilsen, but at the same time, it seems so far away. Most people go the other direction. Nana had opened up and there were some other places that we had visited recently in Bridgeport; so when she called, we said, “Yeah, we’ll definitely come check out what you had in mind.”

Maria Marszewski’s sons Ed and Mike were taking over the family business; it was called Kaplan’s Bar at the time. It was kind of rough and tumble. And they remodeled it and transformed it into what it is today: Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, this cool, hip bar to hang out in. And Ed, who owns both buildings, said, “Hey guys, I need to find somebody who can do the same for that eatery next door, as we did with the bar.”

I said, “Well, Bridgeport, not a lot of foot traffic. It’s a little bit of a risk.” He said, because of this arrangement, we would have a built in clientele, to keep us steady, but at the same time we would have the same kind of community, the same kind of neighborhood draw that we’d have from Pilsen. We’ll introduce a neighborhood to something unique, something fresh and something good, that’s not gonna be too expensive. And so I saw enough things that I liked about Pilsen and Bridgeport and took the chance, and here we are.

You’ve pursued a lot of different ventures under Pleasant House: you have stuff in speciality shops, a brewery, a food truck. How did that unfold?

From the beginning, people enjoyed our product and they experienced it at the restaurant, hot and fresh. Then we started doing some markets, like Dose Market, where we presented our pies frozen to bake at home. That immediately took off, and people still really appreciate that. After about six months, we set into motion our plan for the food truck. We are a small place, we want other people in the city to be able to try it. So we put it on wheels. That truck also does a lot of catering and festivals and weddings for us; so it’s a combination vending and delivery truck.

After a year, we were presented with the opportunity for the Michigan restaurant. We put together everything that we knew about the area; the idea that we would be able to craft our own English-style beer to go along with our own English-style pies seemed like something we couldn’t pass up. About the same time, we started to work with a tavern on Randolph Street called Lone Wolf, and then shortly thereafter, I started working with a café start-up called Plein Air Cafe in Hyde Park, next to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore and the Robie House. They have pies and grain bowls and more of a café-style menu.

Have you always wanted to brew beer?

It was always something we wanted to do. We get to experience those beverage sales economically, even though we have to make it ourselves. At the same time, we get to make beer which we love, fits our flavor profile, and is also a nice choice for people in that area—it’s wonderful beer country there. And everybody’s got their own thing going on. Greenbush is up the street from us; they make big, hoppy, high-alcohol, delicious beers, and then you have somebody like us that makes lower alcohol, session-style, not so hoppy but delicious, English-style beers. It’s pretty cool.

Our hope is to get people to try our beer here in the Chicago market too. We’ve just recently become bonded to bring our beer from Michigan to Illinois. Maria’s said they’d be the first ones to put it on draft—that’d make a lot of sense. But it is like the pies in the sense that we started on such a small scale, and then it was an everyday challenge of trying to make more, make more, make more. We’re at a nano-scale right now with the beer. We’re just pragmatic about what we do and how we scale up.

How is it managing spaces in two different cities?

It’s not as daunting as I thought it would be. And now, after a year, the learning curve has gotten a little bit easier. We’ve got wonderful people in Michigan who are managing things. Gloria Fahim, her official title is Brew-Maven, she is a brewer and a manager, and because we’re doing things on a smaller scale, people are able to do more than just one thing. We keep it pretty simple, we don’t try to do more than what we’re capable of. We believe that offering something focused is a nice choice. So we do our pies and bar snacks and beer. So we think that makes a nice formula.

What was your first pie?

Very first pie? Probably a steak and ale pie. It’s the most popular, and Chicago is a meat and potatoes town. That was the first one that we made, and then the mushroom and kale came about because we were growing a lot of kale in our garden, so we built a pie around that. Now the majority of the kale does not grow from our garden, because we use too much of it, but there’s lots of sources for that kind of thing.

How did you know you wanted to be a chef?

The food thing, as I explained with the gardening, was something that was introduced to me, that I may not have been conscientious of at the time. My mom cooked a lot, and my grandma was a huge influence on her cooking. And my grandma on my dad’s side, that’s where the British influence started to come in. I grew up watching cooking shows; at that time, it would have been The Frugal Gourmet or Martha Stewart—that kind of stuff. My dad had built a smokehouse; he’s a mason, so he had a smoker built into our fireplace.

My mom had a pantry full of Gourmet magazines, cookbooks and everything. The access to those resources, and having a kitchen that cooked—a lot of kids that grow up have kitchens, but they don’t get used, you know? The kitchen was always an open place for me to be. My mom was a stay-at-home mom for the most part, and then when she had to go to work after my youngest brother Michael was born, I started to get my hands dirty, I started cooking. Cooking for my family—my mom and dad, my brothers, experimenting with what I would see on TV or whatever I’d read.

Holiday dinners became these big moments that I would build up to, and at a certain point I realized: I’m gonna be wrapping a turkey in puff pastry, latticing it and everything; this is kinda serious. This is more than just a hobby, this is something that could be something bigger. When it came to college—my parents didn’t go to college, we were a blue collar family—they were like, “Go to college, and after that, maybe you can go to cooking school.” And that’s exactly what happened.

I went to college to be a doctor or a lawyer ‘cause that’s what you do when you go to college. I did go through a political science curriculum, and paralegal studies and English; loved to write. I thought I could be an environmental lawyer. I ended up cooking my way through college, working restaurants, and then went right into cooking school after college.

Is there a part of the process that you most enjoy?

I pretty much love it all. We used to bring big primals of meat into here, and I’d be hacking them down, and processing them in ten different ways. It just became too much for our facility. It became physically not practical to do so, but I always loved that… actually a lot of people come in and ask, “Why don’t you have those Fido bones anymore?” Even the bones would then get roasted and sold.

Making pastry, coming up with new recipes, and even dishwashing. Working in a restaurant, you have all these little ways of being able to master your domain. Since I’m the owner, that hands on experience goes on outside of the kitchen. I designed the restaurant; I’m responsible for what you might see or hear, so I get to enjoy all aspects of it. Even the media interaction like with Twitter or Instagram, I enjoy that. I enjoy connecting with other places like me, putting ideas out there and collaborating.

Can you describe your aesthetic vision for the restaurant?

The exterior, it used to be ‘70s mottled brick, but it did have those little shingles on the top: this could be our little English cottage. So we stuccoed it and painted the shingles. They were supposed to be gold, but they ended up being yellow. People come into an inviting place that has a big counter, where there is counter service; you are able to see what’s going on in the kitchen and interact with the chefs and the staff, then have at least a few seats to sit down and be able to enjoy your food. Not just grab and go.

Sometimes counter service and quick service is associated with corporate, fast food, and we do have our logos and our stamps and stuff, but it still has a nice, independent feel to it. The tables are marble, because the food looks really nice on a white background, but the marble tables are also reminiscent of the very first pie and mash shop in East London where they have the pie and eels and liquor and all that. The wood paneling, that’s reminiscent of barnwood; it was supposed to be reclaimed barnwood, but we ran out of time.

A humble yet comfortable space to hang out in, where you feel comfortable talking to your neighbors. It is conducive to art, and having art on the walls. It has things that make you say “this reminds me of an English pie shop.” Not a caricature or textbook representation of that, but the soul of it is there. The pies are royal, the food experience is that royal experience. Even that is British-inspired, it is a fun way of saying “royal” doesn’t have to be high-class and expensive. Royal can be exactly what you’re experiencing right here. Royal is what you make out of it.

Do you still cook at home? Or does working at the restaurant burn you out?

We could never be burned out on cooking, it’s just the time, finding the time. Chelsea and I have always known how important it is to be able to do those things at home, and this year’s about finding the time, making the time to do that. Last night—we’ve got a cast iron casserole dish, and she made a Provençal chicken dish, with that slow cooker philosophy. Beautiful chicken thighs that she seared with some tomato and capers and olives and Meyer lemon from our own tree.

You have a Meyer lemon tree?

Yeah, we have an indoor Meyer lemon tree. And a guava tree. And a habanero plant.

The Meyer lemon tree is symbolic of what Pleasant Farms, what our urban farm project is. It’s like not everything that we have comes from the farm, but even the littlest thing from the farm can make a huge difference and tell the story. Lettuce is our big one, we can offer one salad and it would be comprised of our own lettuce, and that’s a real symbol of what you can do.

Cooking at home, Chelsea and I were working by researching and developing ideas, but at the same time we were spending time together, eating together, having fun together, having conversations together all over food. We asked: what are we working towards? Well, one of those things is a restaurant. And then all of the sudden with a restaurant, it can take all of that other stuff out of the picture. In life, everything’s a balance. Part of being a business owner is learning how to balance everything. Because, before you know it, that business can consume everything in your life.

We spent four years building something that really snowballed, and it’s a tough thing to say, “Well, is it getting away from us? Is it gaining so much momentum that it’s just consumed 100% of our lives?” And to a certain degree, it seems like it has. But the good thing is that four years is a very formative period, and it’s as good a time as any to then step back and reflect upon it.

Pleasant House Bakery