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Behind the Business of Grant Achatz’s Next Restaurant

PAIR OF ACES: Grant Achatz has assumed the mantle of Chicago’s hottest celebrity chef. But Nick Kokonas—the money guy behind the scenes—may be his equal in innovative thinking

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Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz
Kokonas (left) and Achatz
Nick Kokonas feels lousy. On a sunny late-winter afternoon, he’s on day 3 of a course of antibiotics to swat down a severe ear infection—that, on top of a yearlong, gray-hair-producing stint as the de facto general contractor of Next, the new restaurant he is building with his business partner, the chef Grant Achatz. Shambling around his Old Town home in jeans and a T-shirt, Kokonas leads me up a flight of stairs, lined with neat stacks of unopened mail, to his light-filled office in the attic. He brings up a spreadsheet on his computer and pounds the cushioned seat of his old drummer’s stool, a signal for me to sit as I peer over his shoulder at the numbers behind Alinea, the newly minted three-star Michelin restaurant in Lincoln Park and one of Chicago’s great success stories.

“The only reason I’m willing to show all of this to you, frankly, is because people criticize it without stopping to think from a business standpoint,” he says. He’s referring to some grousing on the web about the decision late last year to drop Alinea’s $145 multicourse menu in favor of offering only the larger $195 version. “It’s not because we want to make more money. It’s because we’re thinking long term. We’re really, really trying to steer Alinea toward being the best in the world.” Alinea actually makes less money since eliminating the cheaper menu. Because the 22-course meal takes four hours to consume, the restaurant can book its 18 tables just once per night, except for the handful that can be reseated by 9:30 p.m. “We can do two [seatings per table of the] $145 menus,” says Kokonas. “Which would you rather bring in? It’s a net loser for us to do the $195 menu only.”

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