It’s the last day of Knockbox, the cozy couple-owned cafe on the corner of my block. I’m not going to lie, I more often end up at the hipster joint down Chicago, where the coffee is better, the baristas my friends and the patio sunny; but of that I am ashamed. The feel inside Knockbox is undoubtedly more comfortable, less loud with better music for morning dithering, though it suffers from serving the Metropolis monopoly crappy coffee. Knockbox has the kind of neighborhood feel that you rarely get. It’s a lot of white people who like coffee yeah, but I’d say even the white people have diversity here…not like the peggable hipsters, baby mamas and papas and grad school junkies like myself – all of us in proper attire for the image (white-zippered hoodies cross-contaminating the lot). Here you still have people wearing jeans with hammer pockets, or button down plaids from Kohl’s. Beards are rare and mustaches rarer still. There’s loafers and all stars, bike shoes and rubber boots, brand new flat bill baseball caps, sticker on, along with their predecessor, the narrowly curved 90s fitted and well-worn cap.
The assortment of seating gives a little something for everyone-cushions in front of the elegantly draped floor-to-ceiling windows, a not-too-comfortable leather couch, and two large armchairs for the loungers. There are tables near outlets with space for seating four and a bar for millers and chatters and waiters and solo standing. The color scheme is a welcoming aquamarine and fava bean green.Why didn’t I come here? Why I am listening to the laughter and chatter and clinking of dishes for the first time today?
Jonah Shalak, owner of Knockbox, leased the large space on the corner of California and Augusta over 4 years ago. He was one of those guys that envisioned, with its proximity to downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods already becoming affluent, a community coffee shop taking off. He struggled to get it running over the next few years but came into stride, turning a profit, over the last two. He and his wife had a plan to make this their living into the foreseeable future. Recently he was told by his landlord that the lease would not be renewed as restaurant mogul, Brendan Sodikoff had signed on to lease all four corners of the urban block. Along with Knockbox, Brendan is displacing a small art space called “The Peanut Gallery” and an auto-body shop, while the classic and dingy California Clipper is being given a makeover (and a cocktail upgrade I’m sure). So what was 4 independent businesses now becomes housed beneath the grand Hogsalt Empire. And what of it? Here’s a Chicago Trib description of Brendan:
The 35-year-old restaurateur is behind the acclaimed Maude’s Liquor Bar (French bar concept), Au Cheval (diner concept), Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf (steakhouse concept), Doughnut Vault (doughnut window concept) and Dillman’s (deli concept), plus the soon-to-open Green Street Smoked Meats (Texas barbecue) and High Five Ramen (Japanese noodles). In the coming year, if his plans hold, Chicagoans can expect pizza by the slice, an Italian steak bar, Chinese Sichuan, a revamp of Humboldt Park lounge the California Clipper and the re-imagination of landmark Gold Coast restaurant Maxim’s. A half-dozen more projects are in the works.
You might call this Brendan concept whore. You might even say he’s gotten tired of whoring himself around downtown and needs to spread his seed around Humboldt Park as well. Brendan’s (or his PR person’s) words were more eloquent, using terms like “community, preserve, history, inclusive”. They strike the right chords and strategically avoid the ultimate bad word “gentrification”. This, of course, has not waylaid criticism. DNAinfo has comments and tiffs for days on the subject, I’m sure many of the same songs sung in Logan Square 10, 20 years ago…probably without the whore analogy. Am I being fair?
Now I’m an outsider here, a grateful Humboldt Park inhabitant, but in no place to make statements nor come to conclusions. All I have is observations. For example, I have to note that my good friend got her start as bar manager in the restaurant industry straight from Sodicoff. After moving to the city and more-or-less green to the service industry, she was able to get bar experience, become a part of a restaurant family and dig herself out of debt. She was able to transfer to different restaurants in the collective and get her sister a job when she, too, moved to Chicago. She has since become a hot commodity due to her experience with high volume liquor sales and professionalism. She also quit that job to work for a small chef-owned and driven restaurant because she believed in it. She stayed with the small independent restaurant for over a year where she was advanced to bar manager within a very short time due to the old manager leaving. During that year she created a cocktail program, educated the staff, brought in reps for tastings, made relationships throughout the beverage industry and won a cocktail competition on behalf of the restaurant. She did all this, working more hours and getting paid less than 1/3 what she was making with the restaurant group. She was underpaid and underappreciated. So, after several failed attempts at negotiating either a livable wage or schedule that would allow her to get a second job, she decided to quit. The restaurant would not budge nor would it give her any assurance for the future. She now works for a larger company that has given her health care, a livable wage and promises upward mobility, a company in which Sodikoff also has his seemingly infinite little fingers.
There is also my story, I have worked in and observed the Chicago restaurant industry for over a year now and it has been enlightening in ways than I would have never imagined. I’ve changed outlooks and opinions on chefs and the industry itself as often as I’ve changed my punctured bike tubes. I’ve met the atypical egomaniacal chef-owners as well as all-star moguls. I’ve heard stories upon stories about who behaves like what behind closed doors or at events. I know of those who’ve gotten too drunk at a party and hit on the wrong person, those who are caught servicing their drug problem in the walk-in and those who are just plain abusive to their staff and partners. These are usually the people on the top, those who have “made it”, are on the cusp of “making it” or have made it their personal mission to “make it” at whatever cost. Do I need to tell you how many of these people are white males? But, what I’ve been most surprised by is the number of chefs I’ve interviewed that are so very content, happy even, to not be the top of the totem pole.
After spending 8 months dealing first hand with a chef-owned and operated restaurant I’ve spent the last 3 interviewing chefs across the city. These are the chefs who are either fleeing from their own prior operations or those have no desire to get mired in the unending details of running a successful business. For these people the moguls are the ultimate way to “make it”. These chefs look for security without so much responsibility that they need to throw pots at cooks heads or call their girlfriend an idiot in front of the entire staff. Some know exactly what they were looking for and found it, some ended up there and realize that it’s the place they want to stay and still more wait for the day that they too can be brought into the fold. Yes, there are still those who do want to strike out on their own, but not as many as you might think.
The former group are ultimately beholden to the “benevolent dictator” chefs who own the restaurant group for which they work. Their finances and numbers come through the bigger business and their ability to get creative depends on the flexibility they’ve been given by the head honcho. In terms of job satisfaction I would say I’ve been astounded by how many found their harbor under the wings of the benevolent dictator. Meanwhile, these moguls are the curators of city culture. With the buying power that no individual could possibly possess (unless coming from wealth, which many a restaurateur do), they can afford a building in a high-traffic area or even, say, transforming an entire corner in a hot and up-and-coming neighborhood because he needs to add some more cards to his little Yu-Gi-Oh! deck and show it off to his friends.
So what am I saying? Everything and nothing. I’m saying that a few will lose their jobs on the California/Augusta corner and 2 will lose their entire future plans due to Sodikoff wanting to increase his little collection. These jobs will be replaced, probably ten fold, by new jobs – jobs that may offer more stability and opportunity than the independent guy could possibly offer. I’m also saying that there is no doubt that gentrification is making its way to Humboldt Park, and yes, we’re all a part of it. I’m saying that this will likely mean less diversity as long-time residents get priced out of their leases and flee further to outskirts of the city. I’m saying city policy does little to interweave gentrification with mixed housing and but rather just pushes the problems further from downtown.
I’m wondering if maybe Sodikoff is nothing but a symptom of a larger disease that people don’t want to address?
In the end, those young white people moving into Humboldt Park, like my friend and myself and all the (mostly) white male chefs I’ve interviewed these last months, will likely enjoy and appreciate their ability to eat, drink and work locally at these places that have the ability to pay well, run efficiently and absorb losses for some time without affecting each employee. Maybe some long-time locals will get a dishwashing or prep job, and yes, they’ll probably be brown. And on and on it will go, repeating itself just the way it has, because just like Sodikoff says, “People want exactly what they know. What people want is to have something they’ve had in every other restaurant, or at their house, they’ve had that thing probably 100 times…” because you know what’s uncomfortable? Change.