Entrepreneur LeQoinne Rice has worked off and on in the restaurant world since his college days. Those experiences, including positions with Applebee’s, Lettuce Entertain You, and most recently So Clutch Group, showed him how difficult it can be for people of color to grow within foodservice. So Rice decided the industry needed a change, and that’s what led him to create The Duplex, a Chicago restaurant and bar featuring rotating menus from various micro-concepts.
The Duplex welcomes local chefs, who otherwise would not necessarily have the resources to start their own restaurants, to secure a space for a micro-concept on a six-month basis. The restaurant also prioritizes employee well-being, as well as work-life balance. To create a more equitable and transparent workplace, it utilizes an optional pooled-tip model for both front and back-of-the-house employees.
The first two concepts The Duplex welcomed when it opened in June were fried-chicken sandwich concept, The Kluckerz, and taco joint, Lime and Radish, both of which Rice originally created as virtual brands. New concepts are slated to debut this month.
FSR caught up with Rice to learn more about The Duplex, including its origin story, its operational structure, and how this innovative model is changing restaurant culture for the better.
Is it true the idea for The Duplex started when you were quarantined in a Houston hotel?
I’ll be honest, if I didn’t get COVID, there’d be no Duplex. I was locked up in a hotel room for seven days, and it gave me time to think there’s got to be other revenue streams in this industry. So I called the owners of the space [where The Duplex is] and said, “What do you guys think about me starting two virtual brands for pickup and delivery while we’re on lockdown?” And that’s how I created The Kluckerz and Lime and Radish.
I liked the idea of people having options. The initial goal was to do 80 orders a week, but then we started to do 240–300 orders a week. That’s how The Duplex came about. I had these two brands that were doing really well, and I wanted to put them into a brick-and-mortar. Now we have a space where people can dine and enjoy both brands.
How does the system work?
The Duplex technically is the landlord of these rotating brands that would come in and out every six months. Currently we’re negotiating with a really cool concept, and we’ll also create another brand in-house. We’re going to build up anticipation behind this. We’ll do a tasting menu for our regulars and influencers to come by and try it before we go live.
The goal truly is to collaborate with these aspiring chefs who don’t have the finances or equity to start their own brick-and-mortar locations—but they do have the talent to start and market their own brand. It’s like taking a step from being in someone’s kitchen to branding yourself and what you can do on your own. We give them a space to do that.
Why do you think restaurants struggle with culture, and how does The Duplex create a better work environment?
This industry can be toxic. With the labor shortage, small-minded people will say the reason why no one wants to work is because of this extra unemployment benefit. That is the easiest answer, right? No, the problem is that a lot of people are overworked and underpaid, which is a big issue.
In my mind, I had to create a better culture that doesn’t have that pressure and stress because at the end of the day, it was not worth it. So we don’t work Mondays. We close right after brunch on Sundays. And we do tip sharing. There is automatic gratuity that’s added, and it’s 20 percent of the bill. We also take 3.5 percent of sales and give that to the back of the house, and they can opt in or opt out of the tip-polling process. It takes a lot of stress and pressure off my staff altogether, which is creating a lighter atmosphere and culture here.
Tell me about The Duplex’s original two concepts and how you’ll choose future ones.
You can get tacos anywhere in Chicago, and everyone wants a fried chicken sandwich right now. I thought I would piggyback on what was hot at the moment. The Kluckerz is a play on The Incredibles. So [the logo] is a really cute bird family. We marketed and branded them out like The Kluckerz family. Lime and Radish Tacos is quick and fast. Tacos made the most sense for us in terms of cost-effectiveness and maintenance; same with the fried chicken sandwiches.
On our website, we have a chef submission form. They go on there, and we ask questions like, what have they done recently? How many menus have they personally developed? What is their favorite cuisine? Have they ever expanded? What does their brand look like? And we go into a little more detail on the online application. That’s kind of how we choose the talent that comes in.
Why is it so important to champion diversity across all positions in a restaurant?
I’m African-American. I take a ton of pride in representation because if you look in this industry, there’s not a lot of brown and Black people in the front of house unless you’re a busser or barback or host. I used to ask a lot of the operators that I worked for, “How come there aren’t enough [people of color] in server, bartending, and management positions?” Their answer was “Well, they don’t apply.” The answer to me is that they don’t feel comfortable enough to apply because they don’t see the representation for themselves.
I want brown and Black people to apply, and not for a busser or a barback. I want them to apply for a server captain position or host position. And the only way to do that is by hiring staff that look like you, walk like you, and talk like you. But I enjoy the fact that everyone’s their own individual. Regardless of what background you come from, it doesn’t matter; I’m all about hiring good people. And if the skills are not there, we can work around that. We do Zoom training every other week, and we play The Duplex Jeopardy or The Duplex Family Feud, because it’s not just about tests and quizzes all the time.