Like many in-line restaurants dotting Chicago’s River North neighborhood, Avec’s simple exterior belies a vibrant dining room inside. While the original location in the West Loop—a long, narrow space with floor-to-ceiling wood paneling—fosters a cozy atmosphere, the newer restaurant is spacious and window-lined with buttery tones, a tiled open kitchen, floating bar, and pops of green from a small assortment of plants.
Just as stylish, albeit in a very different way, are the two people seated at a table in the otherwise empty restaurant. It’s 1 p.m. on a Monday and dinner service won’t begin for another four hours. The pair, Donnie Madia and Karen Browne, both clad in tailored black with thick-rimmed spectacles, could easily pass for art curators out of New York or film producers from L.A. It’s a fitting parallel, given they’re leaders in an equally creative field that’s a whole production unto itself.
One Off Hospitality is the parent group of the two Avec locations, as well as Big Star, Dove’s Luncheonette, Violet Hour, Bar Avec, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, and Publican Quality Breads. In its 11 years of operation, One Off has racked up multiple James Beard Awards across categories, including Outstanding Restaurateur for Madia, Outstanding Chef for chef/partner Paul Kahan, Outstanding Bar Program for Violet Hour, and most recently, Outstanding Baker for Greg Wade in 2019.
Given these accolades and its reputation as one of Chicago’s dining titans, One Off had, for all intents and purposes, a midas touch when it came to creating and executing concepts that resonated with locals and drew admiration from peers farther afield. But even a restaurant group with a gilded hand could not weather the coronavirus unscathed.
“The owners of One Off Hospitality have never experienced trauma like that. Everything they touched has been very successful. So it really was a milestone for us,” says Browne, who is the group’s first-ever chief executive. She joined the team in January 2019, meaning she had a little more than a year to learn the lay of the land before the bottom dropped out.
The darkest hour
As with all full-service restaurants, COVID hit the One Off portfolio particularly hard. In addition to the city’s restrictions, which were among the most stringent in the Midwest, the group’s leadership erred on the side of caution, following all compliance regulations to the letter. But this approach was not without its challenges. In June 2020, One Off permanently shuttered Café Cancale and Blackbird. While the former, a French-influenced seafood restaurant, had only been in operation a year, Blackbird was a fixture in the Chicago dining scene, predating its umbrella group by nearly 15 years. Not only did it usher in a restaurant renaissance in the West Loop, it also clinched a four-star review from the Chicago Tribune, maintained a Michelin star eight years in a row, and won Madia and Kahan their respective James Beard honors.
“People say to me all the time, when I go to a table like this, they go, ‘Oh man, I loved that place,’ and then I just turn around and say to them, ‘Just think about the DNA I have in that space. If anybody misses it, I miss it more than anyone,’” Madia says. “You never want to close your first and best restaurant.”
He consulted friends, including some of the industry’s most prominent restaurateurs, like Danny Meyer, Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune in New York, and Caroline Styne of The Lucques Group in L.A. (Styne along with chef/partner Suzanne Goin had just closed their first restaurant a few months earlier, though for reasons unrelated to COVID).
Blackbird’s once beloved petite size became its Achilles heel during the pandemic. Operating at just 25 percent capacity meant only seating a dozen or so guests at a time. Not to mention, its snug kitchen made social distancing all but impossible.
As these closures were unfolding, One Off was also embroiled in another crisis behind the scenes—this one involving media darling Pacific Standard Time. Named Eater Chicago’s Restaurant of the Year in 2018, the California-inspired concept was in a state of upheaval by summer 2020 when partnering company, Underscore Hospitality, including the group’s cofounder and chef, Erling Wu-Bower, exited. The change wasn’t clearly communicated to the restaurant staff, prompting some to leave. Around the same time, a group of current and former One Off employees wrote an open letter citing pay cuts, understaffing, and other negative practices during the pandemic.
“I always go back to that time when we made those decisions to pay people’s health insurance and some of those things,” Madia says. “You really didn’t know what was ahead. So maybe we should have even been communicating, ‘We don’t know what’s ahead,’ but I do think that we learned some valuable lessons about improving transparency, communicating on a more timely basis, and then just identifying when you don’t know something, say, ‘We don’t know right now.’”
After a lengthy pause in service, Pacific Standard Time made the closure permanent in early 2021, but by February, another One Off property had taken its place: the second Avec.
Browne says the group was already thinking the River North neighborhood could be ripe for another location of the Midwest-meets-Mediterranean concept. And as Madia points out, they were stuck with the space, one way or another.
“We signed a lease for 25 [years]. How are we going to walk away from that? So we put our thinking caps on and worked our way through it. Was it stressful? Absolutely,” Madia says. “[But] there’s no going, ‘I’m out. See you later.’ Plus, it’s not who we are as a group.”
More than a year into the switch from Pacific Standard Time, Avec River North has become a resounding success story. And after a year of upheaval and loss, the new restaurant marked the start of a new chapter in the group’s evolution.
“It did feel like the turning point with the pandemic. Once things were getting underway, there was a point where it’s like, ‘OK, it’s still going on, but we are getting forward momentum,’” Browne says.
Rounding the corner
Just months after Avec River North made its grand debut, One Off Hospitality opened another concept on the eighth-floor rooftop of the same building. Bar Avec features a menu of Iberian-inspired small plates and drinks and serves lunch, brunch, and dinner (Avec on the ground floor only serves dinner). And while an open-air patio restaurant/bar might seem a poor investment in a city known for long, frigid winters, COVID has changed guest—and restaurant—attitudes.
“We’re still working all those dynamics through, but just look at the industry with the pandemic. It encouraged everyone to do more outside. So it almost doubled everybody’s restaurant size,” Madia said. It’s not quite double for the two sister properties (the ground-floor restaurant clocks in around 5,000 square feet and the rooftop bar at about 1,200), but it’s still a substantial amount.
Expansion has continued in 2022 with its in-house baking program landing a brick-and-mortar retail shop in West Town. For the past eight years, Publican Quality Bread, under the direction of head baker Wade, has supplied One Off concepts, as well as 75 other restaurants and retailers, with wholesale baked goods. Now, as a consumer-facing establishment, the bakery/café will serve everything from breakfast pastries and tartines to loaves of bread and sandwiches.
Publican Quality Bread marks a first for One Off both in terms of category (bakery) and location (West Town). As Browne points out, Blackbird opened in the West Loop long before it was the bustling neighborhood it is today. It was a similar dynamic for Publican in Fulton Market and Big Star in Wicker Park.
“They basically were the pioneers in some of these neighborhoods that are now just flying,” she says. “They are known for going into a neighborhood and putting up a tent and just starting restaurant after restaurant.”
At the height of dine-in restrictions, the group traveled even farther afield for its Suburban Supper Club. The brainchild of Browne, this program brought online orders from across the One Off system to central meeting places in about a dozen Chicago suburbs.
“This is a very cosmopolitan group; it’s very Chicago-centric. But believe it or not, we were able to create over 3,000 additional customers through the suburban dinner series,” Browne says. “It kept our people working, and it uplifted our teams. Even myself and Donnie would go do this, and it just felt good.”
As is the case with many restaurant groups, One Off Hospitality is inextricably linked to its hometown. Special circumstances like the Suburban Supper Club might extend beyond downtown areas, but when asked whether the company had ever considered relocating the business during COVID, Madia’s answer is an unequivocal no.
“We’re not going to pack up our families and move to Florida,” he says. “It’s kind of like Custer’s Last Stand, isn’t it? Why would I give up on my city? I was born and raised here. [Browne] was born and raised here. Paul [Kahan] was born and raised here. We’ve got Terry [Alexander] who is from Omaha, but he’s been living here since 1989. Nobody’s leaving.”
This is good news for Chicago, which, like so many densely populated cities, has experienced widespread business closures and population contractions since the pandemic began. (The U.S. Census estimates 91,000 people left the greater Chicago area between 2020 and 2021).
But the group’s dedication to the city goes beyond its stay-put attitude. From the earliest days of COVID, One Off and other notable restaurant companies, like Boka Restaurant Group and Lettuce Entertain You, remained in contact with city leaders. At the request of the Illinois Restaurant Association, these groups shared their safety protocols and best practices, which the association then disseminated among leaders at the city and state levels.
The restaurants’ stories—and struggles—not only helped inform policies, they also provided a real-time account of what independent operators and other small businesses were facing.
And ultimately, these lines of communication have opened the door to new opportunities for One Off. In April 2021, Chicago put out a request for proposals to develop a casino. In total, it received five bids, two of which were submitted by Bally’s Corporation. Madia recalls that it was a competitive field, but ultimately Bally’s $1.8 billion proposal to develop the old Chicago Tribune publishing center won out. The plan included six restaurant concepts, a food hall, three bars and lounges, as well as additional foodservice outfits operating out of a rooftop green space. In the proposal, One Off Hospitality was named as the exclusive hospitality partner.
“That was very influenced, I believe, by the mayor [Lori Lightfoot] really believing in these guys and it being so Chicago-centric. We’re doubling down in Chicago. It’s probably not the easiest, but I don’t know a more resilient city,” Browne says.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger initiative in the city of Chicago right now,” Madia adds.
As of press time, plans were underway to open a temporary casino in the Medinah Temple, a 110-year-old Moorish Revival building in the Magnificent Mile corridor, while the permanent property is under construction.
Full speed ahead
High-power deals could be part of the new normal for One Off Hospitality. Browne’s appointment in 2019 signaled a shift for the company. The five partners, Madia, Kahan, Terry Alexander, Eduard Seitan, and Peter Garfield are all restaurant folks through and through. Browne, on the other hand, brought an entirely different skill set and perspective.
“My background is human capital; it’s not the restaurant industry. But it’s interesting that when the difficulty occurred, I was well-suited for what happened—at least as well-suited as one can be,” she says.
Indeed, Madia recounts an anecdote in which, prior to the coronavirus, Browne advised the partners to create an “in case of emergency” document with contingency plans. Clearly, it proved a prescient suggestion.
Her business savvy is also helping One Off leverage better real estate deals. In the past, Madia and Alexander handled lease negotiations, a responsibility they’ve since handed off to Browne. Madia likens his approach to Friendly Bob Adams salesman—an affable, fictitious character used as a marketing tool in bygone days to attract prospective customers. By comparison, Browne is adept in parsing out contractual details that benefit and protect the parent group. While she brings graciousness and a spirit of hospitality to these negotiations, she’s also cognizant of the line between professional and personal matters. Business ties can be friendly, but the parties needn’t always be friends.
“I know two things: There are list-makers and novel-makers. And then there are CEOs and non-CEOs. I’m not a CEO; I’m just not, and I don’t think the other four partners are CEO material. Could we run a company? Yeah, we ran a company, but I think to get to the next level of business and organization and centralization, [we need a CEO],” Madia says.
Still, Browne is quick to give credit to the One Off partners. “Regardless of what he is saying, they’ve been very successful. They had very good real estate deals [and] great locations,” she adds.
Browne had been in contact with Madia years before she officially joined the team. Back in 2015, the pair’s correspondence centered on one topic in particular: staffing.
“She wrote an email to me and goes, ‘I’m very confused with the makeup of your workforce. I think in the next five years, you’re going to see something that you’ve never seen before,’” Madia says. “She wasn’t projecting that it was going to be a pandemic, but [she knew] how hard it was going to be for us to get staffed.”
As restaurants settle in for the long haul in a more competitive labor market, Browne’s experience is a major asset. For the past 20 years, she has worked at the highest level for companies specializing in talent acquisition and workforce solutions. She saw the workforce bottleneck years before it began in earnest, and now she’s taking steps to reshape what a career with One Off looks like.
“I tell our team that if we lose someone, we may not have an eligible person to replace them, and that is where we are just in America,” Browne says. “We’re always going to have a great employee proposition of why [work at] One Off. And I’m hoping everyone prioritizes that for people. I think it’s just going to make everybody better.”
She adds that difficulty can be inspirational because it requires companies to behave better, whether that’s rethinking work schedules, benefits, paths to advancement, or training practices. Madia says that once upon a time, companies could be “persnickety” when looking at résumés, but now is the time to keep an open mind. After all, skills can be taught, and work experience unrelated to foodservice can bring a kaleidoscope of fresh perspectives.
Since March 2020, the group has hired about 200 employees, and in that time, it’s only lost about a dozen. Browne has also made a point of inviting staff members who aren’t upper-level decision-makers to join in discussions around employee advancement.
“Karen’s mindset is diversity, growth employment, and moving people up the ladder of One Off Hospitality and creating more employee propositions—and also helping retainership as well, because that’s a thing we’re faced with on a daily basis,” Madia says. “We want to have a leg-up in some way to promote our staff members that have been with us for years.”
The concept curators
Both Madia and Browne exude a certain air of fearlessness and possibility. They have ambitious plans for the restaurant group, plus a track record that demonstrates those plans aren’t mere pie-in-the-sky dreams. The two are just as hungry as younger restaurant upstarts, but they have nothing to prove. Instead, they continue this work for the love and challenge of it.
“The partners are very hands-on here. They’re not at home relaxing. I try to encourage more of that, but it never happens,” Browne says.
For her part, moving into the restaurant sphere after decades in a different industry was a decision made out of genuine interest, not necessity. “I’m at a point in my career where I would only work where the ownership is gracious. You grow up and you work for some great people, and you work for some people where it’s a job. This is not that. It’s really a fun experience every day,” she adds.
And in a way, her semblance to a smartly attired curator is fitting.
“Their brand is unbelievable. It’s kind of like being a curator in a museum—just trying to not take it off kilter, but to guide it,” Browne says. “What I’m very proud of is putting in great people who are empowered and can really move this [group] to the next place. That’s what we’re focused on. The partners are always going to be growing the business. We’re always going to be adding restaurants and doing great things.”