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Fat Rice Is Now a Store. Is That the Future of Chicago Dining?

With no sign of dining rooms repopulating anytime soon, prescient chefs are pivoting to retail — some of them for good.

Arroz Gordo at Fat Rice   Photo: Jeff Marini

On Tuesday, acclaimed Logan Square fusion restaurant Fat Rice announced that they were shifting their focus from dining in to to-go meal kits. Henceforth, they’ll be known as Super Fat Rice Mart.

It’s a move many restaurants in the city have made since Gov. Pritzker closed dining rooms on March 16, with one big difference: It could be permanent.

Fat Rice, helmed by the duo Abe Conlon (who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2018) and Adrienne Lo, has constantly evolved since opening in 2012. In 2016, Conlon and Lo expanded the venture to open the Ladies’ Room, a cocktail bar tucked behind Fat Rice serving cocktails with ingredients like housemade malort and chartreuse. That same year, they published their cookbook, The Adventures of Fat Rice, and added a bakery. In 2019, they expanded the bakery with an expanded menu and hours, renaming it the Bakery and Café at Fat Rice.

In short, Fat Rice has never been just a single restaurant. It’s a whole entity that’s continually evolving.

It’s not surprising that Conlon and Lo are the first to announce that their old model, built around in-restaurant dining, won’t be feasible for the foreseeable future. When restaurants reopen, we’ll likely see a reverse of the shutdown process: Dine-in will be restricted to a fraction of capacity for a period of time before restaurants can fully reopen.

But how long will it be before diners feel comfortable eating out, or sitting at bars, within inches of other customers? That unknown makes it difficult for restaurant owners to figure out how to proceed.

“We’re restaurant people and what we always do is move forward,” Conlon says. “It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to open a store, so what can we do?’ It wasn’t, ‘What can restaurants do now?’ It’s really the question of, ‘What is a restaurant? What are its capabilities? How can we continue to feed people great food and take care of them?’”

At Super Fat Rice Mart, the main offering is $99 boxes of organic produce, spices, and seasonings. They’re designed to feed two adults for two days, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, and snacks. In the first box are ingredients and recipes for black sesame oatmeal (breakfast), Portuguese kale and vegetable soup (lunch), and vegetable curry and rice dishes (dinner). You can also add on kits to make some of Fat Rice’s signature dishes, like chili prawns, and pick up pantry staples, Portuguese condiments, and wine and beer.

These offerings feel simultaneously true to the Fat Rice brand, and also allow for a leaner business model that gives them something to build on. Lo and Conlon have plenty of ideas for how to do that: They’ll offer favorite dishes like its arroz gordo and pork chop sandwich as kits or specials, and baked goods like snickerdoodle cookies as bake-at-home options.

Their pivot hints at larger changes we can expect in the Chicago dining scene moving forward, and also raises questions about restaurant jobs. While Fat Rice employed 70, Super Fat Rice currently employs five, including Conlon and Lo.

“Right now, things are more limited, and we want to provide a better way of life for our team,” Conlon says. “We want to grow, but at the same time, we have to take into consideration social distancing while we’re working.”

Wares from the Bakery at Fat Rice PHOTO: COURTESY OF FAT RICE

In Chicago, most restaurants that have stayed open in a reduced capacity have laid off some staff. Some jobs will return when restaurants can reopen, but significant changes to business models and social distancing norms could permanently impact the industry.

During the shutdown, most restaurants that have stayed open have strictly offered carryout and delivery food — whether that’s items from their regular menu, or new things they can execute with a reduced staff and which travel well.

But some owners have been exploring new revenue streams. One of those, the grocery model, fulfills a need that’s emerged as customers stay home: access to hard-to-find staples, from toilet paper to flour.

West Town’s Bar Biscay has made itself into a full-on grocery store called Bodega Biscay, where you can buy everything from housemade empanadas to laundry detergent. Bodega, its owners say, will continue to operate even after Bar Biscay is allowed to reopen the dining room.

That’s also true for El Che Steakhouse & Bar, which is functioning as a pop-up butcher shop during the shutdown, and plans to continue once its dining room reopens.

At brewery and pizza spot Bungalow at Middle Brow, you can buy bread, beer, pizza kits, books from City Lit, and even compost. Co-owner Pete Ternes says that while their current model has been “slightly easier to pull off than a full-service restaurant, I do not expect the market to stay where it is, so we won’t be switching permanently to this model.”

But Ternes and his team will ramp up their grocery business, even once the restaurant reopens. They’ll also likely double down on their subscription model for bread, beer, and pizza. They recently bought a bread oven, located at the closed-loop collection of food businesses known as the Plant, which will allow them to bake wholesale bread. (You can try it in the muffuletta sandwich at Wherewithall, and find loaves at Dill Pickle Food Co-Op, All Together Now, Gene’s Sausage Shop, L&M Grocers, and other spots.)

In Logan Square, the pasta-focused restaurant Daisies remained open for carryout in the early weeks following the shutdown, but stopped on April 1. Starting next week, chef Joe Frillman will return to offering pickup for pasta kits, to-go wine, and other items.

“There’s a lack of hope that anyone is going to bail us out but ourselves,” he says. “When the government shut us down, it was almost a relief since we thought there would have to be some assistance to get everyone back. But what I’ve seen is a complete failure to small independent businesses. Every day we’re not open, it’s costing us money, and the longer we stay closed, there’s less of a chance that we reopen.”

Accordingly, Frillman also has long-term changes planned for his restaurant. His brother, Tim, runs two farms under the umbrella of Frillman Farms; together, they’ve started offering market boxes of produce for pickup around the city, which they plan to ramp up in the coming weeks.

Frillman envisions continuing produce sales even once Daisies reopens. He expects to reconfigure its back room into a market, which would sell produce from the farm and items made in the Daisies kitchen, such as housemade pastas, sauces, and butters. He’s also planning to offer sundries, like tinned fish imported by Preserved States.

“It reminds me a little of gas stations in the South, where you can get grocery items but also some amazing food,” he says. “We didn’t see this coming, but one bright spot has been the creativity that has come out of this.”

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