Most restaurant-industry writing focuses on what’s behind the bar or on the plates, but a restaurant is often truly defined by its location. In the Where We Eat series, I will investigate what is to be learned from the relationship between a restaurant and the place it calls home.
Sports and restaurants go together, well, like chicken wings and a flatscreen. A bar near a major stadium, for example, seems like an incredible coo — but it turns out, it’s not that simple. Two stadium-related development sites demonstrate how sports and food can either be at war or in harmony. More broadly, I’ll discuss who really benefits when a sporty neighborhood booms.
Skol! When Restaurants and the Big Event Compete
Arguably the real star of upcoming Super Bowl LII won’t be Tom Brady or his superhuman health regimen, but Minneapolis’ latest crown jewel: U.S. Bank Stadium.
Completed just last year, the 1.13-billion-dollar project includes a clear retractable roof, Vikings-themed architectural marvels, and specially-designed suites to get fans as close to the field as possible. The stadium coincided with a successful season for its home team, the Vikings barely missing a Super Bowl spot following a beatdown from the Eagles in the semi-final.
The new stadium brings up familiar questions about the economic and social value of such arenas.
Though it’s an admittedly impressive structure, its actual impact on the local economy — including restaurants — is debatable. Vikings owner and president Mark Wilf predicts the stadium’s Super Bowl hosting will easily drum up 400 million dollars. Stanford Professor of Economics Emeritus Roger Noll predicts it will struggle to break-even, during and after the big event.
Nearly half of that price-tag was publically funded, so Minnesotans are hoping to see some sort of immediate pay-off. This includes the local restaurant and bar owners who helped foot the bill for their new neighbor.
While visitors will likely pay at least 7,000 dollars for a trip to the Twin Cities for the Super Bowl, that money is dispersed among the variety of services human-beings require on a vacation. U.S. Bank Stadium will acru much of that revenue, but food and beverage services are predicted to make about 63 million dollars from visitor spending over the weekend. Some of those costs will be in-stadium purchases at ridiculously high prices, but most of it will come from Minneapolis’ slew of nearby eateries and bars.
Ultimately, the stadium’s first national event will pit nearby businesses against it, as everyone struggles to get their slice of the pie among a cold, flu-infused weekend.
But not all stadiums were recently built, but have become the (somewhat reluctant) epicenter for an economic development push, leaving restaurants wondering about their place among the sprouting high-rises. Let’s move to Wrigleyville.
Go, Cubs, Go (and Eat Tacos)
It turns out sporting stadiums and neighborhoods can work together to make each other happy, but it requires an incredible amount of money, vision, and arguably the sacrifice of historic charm. Let’s travel to another Midwestern metropolis with a storied past and murky future: Wrigleyville.
A few days ago Eater Chicago announced that Big Star — the Chicago taco/whiskey/honky-tonk giant — will be opening a second, two-story location in Wrigleyville. Or more specifically, in the Hotel Zachary, a hospitality hub built directly across from the stadium and its new “Park.”
Big Star’s new location is the latest in a series of development initiatives in the historic neighborhood; The area once known for its local watering-holes and funky, “lovable losers” charm is becoming a destination for drunken suburbanites, younger locals, and visiting fans alike.
Last October, Chicago Tribune reported on the convergence of a World Series win, Ricketts family-sponsored housing development, and restaurant openings in Wrigleyville. Ongoing projects on or near Addison and Clark include 150 apartments, a Cinemax theater, Lucky Strike Bowling Alley, the ever-growing Shake Shack, and much more.
The result is a potent cocktail stakeholders hope crowds — especially Millennial ones — will come to enjoy in what is otherwise considered a “seasonal” neighborhood. These Millennials are not just the iPhone X-toting kind on the brink of their careers, but the established and family-having crowd. “The Park,” described as a “European-style village” by Eric Nordness, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Hickory Street Capital, brought chilly children to its ice-skating rink and German Christmas market over the holidays.
Ultimately, a successful Cubs team isn’t enough for Wrigleyville to boom, nor is just a new park, or new hotel, or new restaurant. It’s creating a visitor experience catered to demographics who have green in their pockets and want to enjoy the trendiest of pursuits.
Big Star embodies this. While it’s known for its Mexican flair and alcohol, the new location will also double as a music venue. The owners in fact started their own record label; vinyls (of course) can be conveniently purchased at the restaurant.
Not only is this a massive administrative and monetary undertaking, but it demonstrates how food and beverage services are working together with the Ricketts and their development to make Wrigleyville a destination.
But will the Ricketts have their cake and eat it too?
‘Every fan puts winning over Wrigley.’
If the word “gentrification” kept coming up in your mind while reading about these developments, you’re not alone. The Chicago Reader discussed how Todd Rickett’s close association with President Trump — he runs a pro-Trump Super PAC and was asked to serve on the cabinet — reflects a conservative-capitalist approach to Wrigleyville.
In other words, the Ricketts are allegedly turning the neighborhood into their version of paradise — a corporate, bourgeois meeting place for other white, upper-class people. The tales of this family and their quest for financial power in Chicago is too long to cover here, but it includes threatening to move the Cubs to Rosemont if they didn’t get their way.
In 2013, during said threat to move if development wasn’t approved, Todd Ricketts had this to say about the stadium and its surrounding neighborhood: “Overwhelmingly, the people I talk to say, ‘Do what you have to do.’They really do. Every fan puts winning over Wrigley.”
This likely did not reflect the attitudes of businesses since forced to close because of the Ricketts takeover, including Goose Island Wrigleyville, Bookworks, Yesterday Hobby Shop, The Alley, and a slew of chains like 7-Eleven, Panera, and perhaps the classic nearby Taco Bell. It also probably doesn’t reflect the attitudes of working-class Chicagoans who want to enjoy a Cubs game and not shell out for over-priced beer and amenities.
This increasingly exclusive environment, less-focused on Wrigleyville’s charm and more on creating an upper-class recreational hub, may prove lucrative during the (admittedly long) baseball season but otherwise ….
Wrigleyville Without the Ball Game
A winning Cubs and a beautiful summer’s day will always bring crowds — and their wallets — to Wrigleyville’s restaurants. During their play-off berth last year, some bars charged as much as 1,250 dollars to watch the game in proximity to the stadium. For a measly 300 dollars, you could get an appetizer — but with no seat.
Yes, they are a dedicated fanbase that waited 107 years for their World Series retribution, filling Wrigley every year if it’s just to experience the buzzy atmosphere. But what happens when the season ends? Or worse, what happens when the Cubs — inevitably — start playing poorly again? The fact is many restaurants cannot survive a seasonal schedule, especially when the “in-season” doesn’t perform.
After all the projects are completed, and the old and new Wrigleyville exist together, it will be interesting to see who can survive the drought.