Steven Johnson

Upscale Barbecue Brand Banks on Catering

Chicago q is an upscale restaurant that's working hard on its catering business. How is it surviving in these rough times?

In just one year since it opened, Chicago q has seen its catering business rise from zero to between seven and 10 percent of sales.

While that’s nice, the Chicago-based barbecue restaurant’s owner, Lee Ann Whippen, is working hard to continue to grow catering sales and is seeing them rise by about one percent every two months.

“Catering is gravy as far as income,” Whippen says. “You have less overhead for staffing, you don’t have the high payroll that’s associated with it, and it is free advertising for our restaurant.”

Whippen’s goal is for catering to be no more than 30 percent of sales, so it doesn’t interfere with her in-house operation—and she hopes to reach that goal in the next 18 months.

In fact, she adds, her other restaurant, Wood Chicks BBQ in Chesapeake, Virginia, “probably wouldn’t have made it without that catering base.” There, catering constitutes 14 percent of business, she says.

But at Chicago q, which opened in September 2010, she’s taking it slow and only launched the catering business five months ago. “We didn’t want to jump into it and sacrifice our daily operation. There’s no sense in spreading yourself thin and making a lot of mistakes.”

So Whippen has contracted the order-taking and delivery side of the business out. That company takes the orders, faxes them to the restaurant, and follows up with a phone call. Chicago q then provides the food for delivery.

“It’s more of an experiment to see if it’s feasible,” she points out.

The traditional side of Chicago q’s business might be a good indicator. Sales at the end of the first year were 24 percent higher than Whippen had anticipated.

Chicago q is an upscale barbecue joint in the Gold Coast area of Chicago, which is a close community with a population of young professionals, families, and retired professionals with higher quality of living, spending and income.

She opted for this neighborhood, she says, “because there was no competition, and looking at the median income here, I thought the restaurant could be successful.”


But what makes a barbecue restaurant upscale?

First is the quality of the meat, Whippen says, which includes Kobe brisket and salmon. Because of the quality of the meat, it is not disguised under heavy sauces. All meats are dry rubbed, and any sauces are served on the side.

And second is the fact that many of the dishes are very labor intensive. For example, the Competition Ribs, (as they are called on the menu) are dry rubbed and smoked over hickory and apple wood for around four hours. But halfway through the smoking process there is an added step and four ingredients are added to the product.

Third, the barbecue is authentic, using proper wood—white oak and cherry wood for the Kobe; hickory and apple wood for pork and chicken; sugar maple for salmon. “It’s unusual for a restaurant to change out the woods it uses—it takes a lot of space and you have to be organized,” Whippen says.

She also ensures all her employees are fully trained. “We want the staff to be very knowledgeable about ingredients, the smoking process, and the different regions of barbecue.”

The most popular dishes on the menu are Competition Ribs (St. Louis and Baby Back). “Customers say that once they’ve had them, they’ll order them every time they come back,” says Whippen. The average check for lunch is $20 to $22; dinner is $35 and private dining is around $50.

Guests typically are families earlier in the evening and a slightly older crowd later on. Lunch is comprised largely of business professionals, and on the weekend the mix is families and locals.

Prior to opening, the cost of renovating the building was $3.3 million.

Through the renovation, Whippen’s goal was to portray an urban upscale atmosphere with almost a “Southern Savannah Georgia” feel, she says.

“The previous décor was very dark and dreary so we replaced the floors with beautiful pine and brightened up the interior with sky lights and pale ivory walls. Large farm photographs adorn the walls giving you the feeling of the south as well. The addition of black studded leather chairs and booths rounded out our upscale atmosphere with the ultimate in comfort and style.”

She is walking a fine line, she says. “We wanted the restaurant to be upscale and urban, but not too pretentious that people are afraid to pick up a rib and eat it with their hands. We’re teetering on that line.”