“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.