Award-Winning Chicago Restaurants Pivot to Selling Gourmet Groceries

Trips to the grocery store, once a beloved ritual for me, have become minefields. I fight the panic as — armed with my trusty mask and gloves— I dutifully follow the one-way arrows and social distancing mandated at the local Whole Foods or Valle, only to be met head-on by people who either can’t read or don’t care, as they jostle by on their fruitless search for toilet paper and Lysol wipes. Rules don’t apply to everyone, right? Sigh. 

But happily, an excellent option has appeared, one borne of necessity out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of your favorite award-winning chefs and restaurants are flipping their own playbook. Temporarily shuttered restaurants, unable to fill their seats but still facing lease payments, utility bills, and more, are now partnering with their purveyors to offer specialized groceries. In most cases, you will order online for pickup at a proscribed time; these are touchless shopping experiences that offer the consumer an opportunity to experience restaurant-quality proteins, dairy, and produce, as well as proprietary sauces, marinades, meal kits and other various cooking essentials in their own home, and I am here for it. A not so ancillary bonus: these restaurants are throwing a lifeline to local farms, artisanal product makers, and others who depend on the largely shuttered restaurant industry for their livelihood.

When the word came down in mid-March that all Illinois restaurants must cease table service and close their doors to customers, it was a shock. “We went from a full house on Friday, to a half-filled room on Saturday, and then we were closed…it was so abrupt,” shares John Manion, chef-owner of El Che Bar in the West Loop. A few days later, when it became clear they wouldn’t be opening anytime soon, he decided to sell off all of the meat he had in his cooler, and the idea of an El Che Butcher Pop-up was born. 

John Manion of El Che holds up Tomahawk Chop

“I sold them at a fair price, and sold out completely,” says Manion. “The sale of meat worked well for us. I’d always loved the idea of the meat case up front, like I saw in Argentina growing up — it seemed like an organic solution. We needed to sell beef, and now it turns out that this is a viable, somewhat sustainable business model, that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of labor and is true to our brand. It makes sense, especially now.” So much so, that as of June 1, El Che Provisions will be operating week in and week out, with a targeted catering business planned for the future.

Up in Evanston, Amy Morton, owner/proprietor of Found Kitchen and The Barn, had a similar thought process about serving both treasured purveyors and her loyal clientele, but is also using this time to embrace change and re-envision how she does business. “At first, I just wanted to get rid of inventory,” says Morton of her “Found Pantry” concept. “But then I never want to just do something for the sake of doing it. There must be purpose. Found has always been about community, about being local. So we will keep it going and will create a specialty food section at Found even after we’ve reopened.”

Found Farmer’s Box, photo courtesy of Tara Young

It’s also been an opportunity for Found’s new chef, James Beard Award winner Debbie Gold, to try out some new menu items with Deb’s Dish, weekly family meals that can be ordered through Found. Morton is also partnering with her three daughters to create Three Sisters Juice, which will open in the front of Found for morning juices and smoothie pickup.

Daisies, chef Joe Frillman’s popular Logan Square restaurant, is taking a slightly different approach. While they will still be doing a virtual market as well as a limited restaurant menu for pickup during the week, Frillman has added a weekly Sunday Shop. “The Logan Square Farmer’s Market is closed for now, and there aren’t a lot of fresh grocery options in the neighborhood, so we are looking to provide people with options,” says Frillman. “We want to provide for people in a safe manner — the whole restaurant will be cleared out to accommodate it, with lots of space between vendors. Everyone will have to have a mask to enter, with eight shoppers allowed inside at any given time. There will be a traffic pattern from the front door to the back-door exit, and it will be as contactless as possible. And it’s free to vendors and attendees.”  

Daisie’s Mushroom Pappardelle Kit, photo courtesy of Kat Levitt

Other well-known Chicago chefs and restaurants have gotten in on the grocery game, including West Town’s Bar Biscay (now Bodega Biscay), James Beard Award winners Sarah Stegner (Prairie Grass Café, Northbrook), Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat-ceries), and Paul Kahan (Publican Quality Meats). Most surprisingly, Abe Conlon, 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef – Great Lakes, has reopened his Portuguese-Macanese Fat Rice as Super Fat Rice Mart, with no plans to open again as a full-service restaurant. “The restaurant for the foreseeable future is dead,” Conlon recently told the New York Times. “People are not going to feel comfortable being in close quarters or being in a cramped dining room.” In these uncertain times, adaptation is the name of the game.

Where to Find Restaurant-Quality Groceries, Farmer’s Produce, and More

Biscay Bodega, photo courtesy of Kim Yeoh

Bodega Biscay  

1450 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 312-455-8900

One of the very first places to pivot to this new reality, Bar Biscay/Bodega Biscay in West Town is doing a brisk business as a neighborhood grocery store with an inspired mix of dairy, meats, produce and dry goods; à la carte, ready-to-serve items (House-Made Gnocchi, Chicken Empanadas, Hangar Steak with Creamed Spinach); take-and-bake quiche, cookies, and gratins; kitchen kits (Breakfast in Bed, BBQ Kit); and household items ranging from the practical (TP, latex gloves, hand sanitizer, bleach) to the aspirational (chamomile shampoo, tea lights). Wines, cocktail kits and other adult beverages are also on offer. Order every day from 12 – 8 pm for no-contact delivery or curbside pickup.

Daisie’s Bloody Mary Kit, photo courtesy of Kat Levitt

Daisies Market

2523 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, 773-661-1671

Chef/owner Joe Frillman’s Logan Square favorite Daisies (awarded Best Neighborhood Restaurant at the 2018 Jean Banchet Awards) is — for now — Daisies Market, with lots of seasonal fresh produce, restaurant-quality proteins and more from local partners, as well as a rotating selection of meal and cocktail kits, weekly market boxes, and a la carte offerings from the restaurant kitchen. You can even donate a hot meal to a local hospital worker! On Sundays, visit Daisies Sunday Shop in person for a safe market experience. Vendors will include produce from Frillman Farms (owned by Joe’s brother, Tim) and Mick Klug Farms, lamb and pork from Catalpa Grove, tinned seafood from Preserved States, bottled fresh juices from Real Good Juice, and beers from Pilot Project Brewery down the street. Daisies will sell their own pasta kits, sauces, and the like. Daisies Market: Order online for pickup Tuesday – Saturday from 4 – 8 pm; Sunday Shop open from 10 am – 2 pm.

El Che Meat & Provisions 

845 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago, 312-265-1130

From pop-up butcher shop to provision store, John Manion’s El Che is keeping up with the times… and demand. Dry-aged steaks (tender Filets, brawny Tomahawk Ribeyes and NY Strips), sausages (chorizo, morcilla), sweetbreads, and short ribs will bring on the meat sweats when you cook them at home, or go big with a Parrillada Kit for two or four with all the fixings for an Argentinean BBQ. The store will also feature prepared foods (whole chimichurri chickens, salads, sides, sauces, etc.), limited groceries, sweets and baked goods. And you can’t go wrong with a Caipirinha Cocktail Kit to accompany your meal. Order online for pickup Tuesday – Friday from 4 – 7 pm. Weekend pop-ups a possibility so stay connected.

Found Kitchen  

1631 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-868-8945

Amy Morton is always reinventing her restaurant, most recently with the addition of James Beard Award-winning chef Debbie Gold, and you can sample some of her newest dishes with Deb’s Family-Style menu, which includes entrée, two sides and dessert for four people. But Evanstonians are also going crazy for the “Found” Pantry, especially the Local Farm Produce Box (available Fridays only), restaurant-quality meats from family butchers (Meats by Linz, Catalpa Grove and Whittingham), cheeses (Hooks Cheddar, Rogue Creamery Caveman Blue), Debbie’s slice-and-bake cookie doughs, house-made jams, and pantry items from bucatini to almond milk, toilet paper and even tampons. Order online (by noon day of) for pickup from 4 – 7 pm Wednesday – Saturday.

Girl and the Goat-ceries by Stephanie Izard  

820 W. Randolph St., Chicago

Top Chef and James Beard Award winner Stephanie Izard is serving up Weekday Dinner Meal Kits for two or four (recent options included a This Little Goat Went To Korea Chicken Tacos with all the fixings, and a Wild Alaskan Halibut Dinner with sides and dessert) for pickup at Little Goat Diner. Feel free to add on some ready-to-bake favorites (Cheddar-Scallion Biscuits, Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake Kit, Fat Elvis Pancake Kit), breads and bagels with seasonal spreads, all manner of in-house pickled items and dips, cocktail mixes, and Izard’s line of This Little Goat sauces and spice mixtures. Pre-order on Tock up to the day before for pickup Monday – Friday. Limited suburban pickups available in Northbrook and Naperville.

Prairie Grass Café  

601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook, 847-205-4433

Known for her dedication to education, sustainable proteins, local farms, and seasonal produce, James Beard Award winner Sarah Stegner and fellow owner/chef George Bumbaris have stayed true to their brand during the pandemic. They use as much local produce as possible and encourage the rest of us to do the same. You can pre-order fresh, pre-portioned raw fish for pickup at Prairie Grass on Mondays, and fresh produce from Three Sisters Garden for pick up on Tuesdays and Mick Klug Farms on Thursdays. Along with their à la carte menu, Prairie Grass offers meal kits for two, such as the Skirt Steak Meal Kit with Ancho-Marinated Skirt Steaks, first-of-the-season local asparagus, Mighty Vine yellow tomatoes, prepped Yukon Gold potatoes, Three Sisters Garden micro-greens, garlic chive compound butter, and chocolate chip cookies. All kits come with wine suggestions (at a 50% discount from their wine list). Order online for curbside pickup daily from 4 pm-7pm.

The Digital Butcher Shop at Publican Quality Meats  

825 W. Fulton Market, Chicago

So happy to see this One Off Hospitality stalwart up and running in the Fulton Market District. Rob Levitt, head butcher at PQM, stocks his digital “case” with just about everything you need for full-on deliciousness this week, including Greg Wade’s James Beard Award-winning Publican Quality Bread. Steaks, ground meats, pork chops, and chickens vie for virtual space with in-house charcuterie, sausages and deli meats; prepared items like stocks, soups, pickles and spreads share the fridge with dairy products. You can still order their great sandwiches (Asparagus Grilled Cheese, PQM Club, Parm 3.0) and salads (Market, Orzo & Quinoa), cookies, mini pies, and frozen cookie and biscuit doughs. Well-priced wines and craft beers can fill out your cart. Order online for delivery and curbside pickup, available daily between 10 am – 6 pm.

How to help: 

Supporting local businesses like these is one of the best ways you can help your community. For more organizations that need your support, check out the Better List.

More from Better:

Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night. 

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