Alicia Bird and Scott Golas are the owners, and Jesse Badger is the chef, of The Spoke & Bird in the South Loop.
The interview begins with Alicia and Scott.
SCOTT GOLAS: We both worked at a digital ad agency prior to this place. We took our fifth year sabbatical, which everyone does. We bought an old Airstream camper that we went out to pick up and drive back across the country. And at some point in northern Arizona, we pulled over and said: we don’t really want to go back. [laughs] We had done everything we had set out to do at the agency.
We spent the next two days driving, riffing off a list of things we want to do. Things we were happy doing, things we could realistically do in the near future. We had approached the previous owner of this place probably a year before that ride and told him: if you’re ever thinking about getting out of the business, let us know. We had frequented it and sat in the courtyard and thought: boy, if we just could do this, if we could just invest a little money… we dreamed a lot.
These two things converged shortly thereafter. The owner approached us when we came back into town and said: were you serious about that? We had narrowed our list of things down to a restaurant, or a bar, or something in the retail world that we both had experience doing. We decided to make him an offer that he couldn’t refuse. And he didn’t. [laughs]
ALICIA BIRD: No, I’m from a small farm town in Indiana, Parker City. I’ve been here eight years though, and I’ve always lived across the street from the restaurant.
SG: I’m from, for the most part, the South Side of Chicago. Calumet City.
SG: It helped. But part of the attractiveness of this spot was that it had pretty good revenue, year-over-year growth, even given the lack of investment in it. And then you saw the gentrification of the South Loop happening. We’re on the only pedway bike path route to the lakefront south of Roosevelt and north of 31st. The Green Line just went in, and the DePaul arena and a new hotel just broke ground two blocks down the street. It is a convergence of population density, gentrification, and construction. This zip code is the most diverse zip code in the city.
I don’t know if we’re literally the midpoint between McCormick Place and the center of downtown, but you can just watch the cabs, the people traverse between. It’s true what they say about location, location, location. I don’t know if you could pick a better spot for a restaurant. And the courtyard is probably the prettiest courtyard in the city in the summer. It’ll be a very bike-friendly place. We just put another rack in, we’re lobbying the city, just got the alderman’s approval for a bike corral on the street, there will be a bike maintenance rack out in the courtyard in the summer.
SG: It was cheap, for one, eight years ago. Back then it was a little sketchier than most people would’ve liked. We’re also big cyclists, so access to the lakefront was is key. And we spend a lot of time going back to Indiana. If we move to Lincoln Park, we’re gonna need another twenty-five, thirty minutes to get to the Dunes, or Michigan. So convenience, too.
SG: It’s a Park District building, and a historical building, in a historical district. Just finished a multi-million dollar renovation, most of the construction was done last year. All except the kitchen and the dining room. That was all left undone with the anticipation that whoever the vendor was would redo it.
AB: We’re a concessionaire, technically, for the Park District. It’s a three-story building, there’s another tenant that takes up the entire third floor, Kids Science Labs, but the rest of the building is programming space for the Park District. There’s adult programs, kids programs. Working with the Park District has been great.
SG: That is not tongue-in-cheek, they’ve actually been awesome.
AB: Yeah. They’re super supportive, and I don’t think that was our expectation, at first. But it’s been really great.
AB: Yeah, there’s definitely a need for everyone that walks through the door. When we were closed for renovations, every day people were walking in: when are you gonna open? When can I get coffee, when can I get breakfast? It was cool to see how much people missed having something here, and their reactions since we’ve been open have been extremely positive.
SG: Since our soft opening a week ago, we haven’t really told anyone. And it’s been insane. We’ve blown away all the prior-year numbers from the old café… which are a good gauge that we’re trending in the right direction. We’ve already put the hiring signs back up, and that’s just being open for breakfast and lunch. We’ll soon add dinner, and probably by that time it’ll be warm enough for the patio to open. That will add a hundred-plus seats to what we have right now, which is about forty total between this dining room and the few tables in the lobby.
All out of a kitchen that’s totally open and probably more familiar to folks who are used to using Easy-Bake Ovens.
AB: It’s tiny. [laughs]
SG: We’re space-challenged here, we optimize every inch of the cube.
SG: The flat-out plain answer is we’re not really sure yet. [laughs] We do have plans to be a three-season restaurant, so we’ll add canopies, awnings, heaters out there to try and run longer. It’ll become a challenge if we can’t maximize the capacity of the kitchen, and pick up additional storage. There’s so much throughput you can do with just ergonomics and design, but at some point you just reach capacity. We’ll either have to do off-site prep, reduce the menu, some stuff, but we’ll figure it out.
AB: We have ideas for when we start adding seats, when the patio opens. Adding a walk-in would be nice. Once the patio’s open I think we’ll have prepping and preparing twenty-four hours a day. We’ll have people here overnight. Which now we don’t.
SG: Though we’ve been working pretty late into the night. [laughs]
AB: Or early into the morning.
SG: Yeah. The Glessner House museum next door does about a hundred and twenty events a year. A lot of weddings in the park, and receptions. A lot of parties in the winter, and they’ve got a fairly large coach house, the building right next to the patio. We’ve got a relationship with them that we’ve built up through mutual events.
We had a meeting this past Sunday with Glessner House and the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance about expanding the Toast of the South Loop, which is a quasi-street fair--- it’s a little more formal--- that used to be held exclusively in the Glessner House courtyard, but will spill out now into the patio and the courtyard here. From the Park District and Park Commission, to Glessner House to Women’s Parks and Garden, to PDNA, everyone’s rallied around us, which is kind of cool.
AB: The concept behind the design was to create a really warm, inviting and functional space. We worked with local craftsmen, sourced the materials locally, used reclaimed materials where we could. These tabletops are from Park District trees that were cut down last year. The cool wood wall, those are actually pieces of scrap wood and trim that I picked up off the floor of our contractor’s woodshop. The guy that made our booths is twenty minutes away. It’s all as local and reused as we could get.
SG: People design spaces that are cool-looking, but not functional. You have to keep that in mind, especially in a restaurant this size. It’s a constant battle that we’ll have to fight, but a lot of planning went into it beforehand. How is this going to be used?
AB: Design the space for the people that are going to use it, and constantly change it if needed. Watch how people actually use the space and if there’s something that you see, like a pattern--- they constantly move a table, figure out why everybody moves that specific table, and make a change to make your space more functional.
AB: Do we want to bring Jesse in?
SG: That might not be a bad idea.
Alicia heads to the kitchen to find Jesse, returning alone a minute later.
SG: Is he coming?
AB: Yeah, he’s washing his hands. He was in the middle of butchering a pig’s head. [laughs]
Something that comes through in our food is the supply chain. We’re the last step. We’re the last people to potentially mess up that really good product that ten, twenty people have had a hand in getting to our restaurant. I think that’s important. We know how to properly brew the coffee and work with the beans that Counter Culture Coffee takes so much care and time getting for us. If we’re getting these really great farm eggs we should be able to cook them properly.
Jesse joins us at the table.
JESSE BADGER: I think the menu is pretty straightforward. It’s modern American food which gives you a lot of leeway to play around with different categories and different techniques from all over the place, because America is such a diverse country. This neighborhood is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city too, so that gives us a lot of room to do pretty much whatever’s appropriate to the produce that’s available right then.
As of right now, I think about 90% of the menu is coming from local farms, small purveyors, and that’s something we’re gonna stick with. That we can do that in January already is pretty good, so I think by next year we should be able to do almost 100%. We work with like thirty local farms, it’s the entire back page of the menu so far, but we’re setting up more, we’re getting our first deliveries from a couple people I’ve worked with in the past tomorrow. And along with that we’re buying products that are produced with a lot of integrity and attention to detail.
This morning we were making sausage. It comes from Catalpa Grove, which is Trent and Jackie Sparrow, they do pigs, lamb, and goat.
SG: He’s still a full-time truck driver because he can’t sustain the business yet, but if he gets over a certain level of business in the next six months he and his wife can quit their jobs and focus on their hog farm. That’s a great story to tell people.
JB: Every time I call Trent on the phone it takes me two minutes to order what I need to order, and we spend thirty minutes talking about his pigs. [laughs] The way we’re making the sausage is basically whole hog. We were breaking down a pig head just now, taking all the parts we couldn’t use for guanciale, which is cured Italian jowl bacon. That’ll go into the sausage.
We’re using a little bit of organ meat in there too, which is something that’s notoriously hard to get rid of in most American restaurants. We’re gonna incorporate it into different dishes, different ways that are appealing to people. Respect for the ingredients that we can get and getting everything the best quality that we can from as close as possible.
JB: We haven’t had any pushback from any of the menu items currently. Some of the more popular things are things that I expected to be less so. There’s a quinoa porridge, which has a 63° poached egg in the middle, with shaved pecorino romano, mounted like a risotto. People are unfamiliar with it but they’re still ordering it, and in considerable numbers. If you can go with something that’s outside of people’s normal comfort zone, and they appreciate it, you build enough trust that the next time they come in you can say: hey, try this.
JB: I’m super excited about it. Dinner is usually slower paced than breakfast or lunch. Right now pretty much every pick-up on the menu is designed so that if it’s the only thing we have to cook we can make it in less than six minutes. Just so people can get in and out. As much as we can, we’re trying to expedite things at lunch. There’s a lot of different ways we can do that without compromising our quality. But dinner, you have more freedom to do different things that take longer.
AB: Dinner will be full service.
JB: People understand that’s built into the concept, they see different sections of courses on the menu. It gives you more time. Once we have the outdoor space open, we’ll definitely have some sort of live-fire cooking out there, do huge cuts of meat, like 72 oz. bone-in cuts from local local farms. It takes forty-five minutes to cook, but they’re gonna get salads and appetizers and drinks and all that, so you have time to get it to them without there being any sort of disconnect. It’s not something you can do at lunch. So it’s exciting in that way.
JB: When I first moved, it was because my girlfriend was here for school. I had been a partner in a restaurant, and I thought I could take my buyout from that and I’ll have a financial buffer to be a line cook and just learn stuff. One of the first jobs I got offered was as the opening sous chef at Little Goat. That was a huge restaurant opening, more moving parts than any restaurant I’d ever worked with. So I’ve done Little Goat and one other big opening just since I’ve been in Chicago, and three in Louisville before I moved here.
JB: It was a lot of running around. The first day, we were three times busier than we thought we were gonna be. So there was lots of: we’re out of this, let’s try and make more. And that continued for the rest of the week. Lots of running around in circles. We’ve got a little horseshoe shape back there and I think all day Saturday and Sunday it was just [swings hands back and forth] I’m going here, I’m going there. Put some food out, back over here.
My legs were really sore, that’s the biggest takeaway from opening. [laughs] It could be worse.
JB: Transparency, as far as what we do cooking-wise. If we say we’re gonna use something from a farm, that’s where it’s from, it will be from there. I guarantee it. If we say we’re gonna do something in a certain way, that’s how it’s gonna be cooked. If somebody really likes a dish--- there’s a guy that lives down the block that’s super into the turkey burger. He came in yesterday, we were talking about it, and he’s getting ready to move to California. So I say: what’s your email? He gave it to me and I emailed him the recipe from my kitchen recipe book. I told him: you can make these when you move to California, you can grill out and impress all your friends. [laughs]
SG: Or the other day, when a dad came in with his daughter, her name is Olivia. She’s a big fan of crepes and we don’t have crepes on the menu right now, but Jesse said if you call me the day before I will make the crepe batter, it sits overnight and hydrates, and I will make you some crepes.
JB: Yeah, I lived and worked in France for two and a half years, and my mentors there would probably find out if I didn’t make crepes properly. They’d come and yell at me. So I said: I need twenty-four hours notice but I will totally make you some awesome crepes, Olivia!
AB: My last name is Bird, so that’s where the Bird comes from, and we are both cyclists so that’s where the Spoke comes in. It’s also a play on “spoken word”. It really was that simple at first, but the more we thought about it, it became more about teamwork and our vision. You can view the restaurant as a wheel and everybody who works here, every piece of the restaurant, we’re all like spokes on this wheel. One spoke breaks, your wheel is shot. It’s a good analogy. We all work together in a very small space, it’s important for everyone to work together and communicate in any restaurant but especially a small, open-kitchen concept like ours.