Mangia! Inside fancy food emporium Eataly
By: Lorene Yue
Eataly—New York’s celebrity-sponsored food emporium that is the definition of excess—is almost ready to devour River North. But will the neighborhood’s frequent-diner residents and tourists slaver over it?
Part restaurant, part gourmet grocer and all show, Eataly is set to open off North Michigan Avenue at the end of November. It will sprawl over 63,000 square feet—roughly the footprint of five Trader Joe’s markets and bigger than its Manhattan predecessor—on two floors and boast eight Italian-themed restaurants plus fresh produce, seafood, meats and cheeses; prepared foods and sandwiches; an inhouse brewery; wine and cocktail bars; and specialty items like cured boar’s meat and $227.80 bottles of balsamic vinegar.
Unlike in New York, this Eataly will offer fried foods and a “Nutella station,” too. A customer might spend $2 for a slice of fresh focaccia or $200 for a truffle-based dinner.
“We think we can add to the landscape of food,” says Adam Saper, an Eataly partner. “We have very high hopes, and we think this is going to be an unbelievable site.”
Eataly’s partners chose River North on purpose. The neighborhood is home to 52,000 residents, nearly a third of them between 25 and 34 years old. The median income is $62,803. During weekdays, the area also is crowded with office workers. Eataly expects 70 percent of business to come from people who live or work nearby. And, of course, there are all those tourists, whom Eataly is counting on to pack its markets on weekends.
Eataly’s domestic owners, who include celebrity chef Mario Batali and restaurateur (and “Master Chef” judge) Joe Bastianich, scored with that same customer mix when they opened their first U.S. location in New York’s Flatiron district in mid-2010. It pulled in $70 million its first year.
Chicago has one other thing going for it: The city is close enough to New York that Eataly can use the same suppliers for both imported and domestic products. “If we went to the West Coast, we would have to redo our logistics,” Mr. Saper says.
Customers dine at La Pizza restaurant at Eataly in New York. Bloomberg News photo
But while no one place has what Eataly will have, River North and nearby neighborhoods hardly lack for high-end restaurants or upscale supermarkets. Within just a few blocks of Eataly’s East Ohio Street location are a Trader Joe’s, a Whole Foods Market, a Jewel and a Dominick’s. Go a little farther and there’s Whole Foods Market Inc.’s Lincoln Park flagship, which is even bigger than Eataly—and comes with free indoor parking. (Mr. Saper plans to announce customers’ parking options soon.)
“The big challenge is to get patrons in River North to change their habits from where they are going now,” says Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc. in Chicago. “Unless Eataly has a better experience and better value, patrons are going to go back to what they are accustomed to.”
Brendan Sodikoff, the restaurateur behind River North’s Gilt Bar and Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, welcomes the new eatery. “Nothing good ever hurts,” he says. “It does make competition stiffer. (Other restaurants) will have to be on their game.”
Eataly was founded in 2007 when Oscar Farinetti opened one in Turin, Italy. There are now 18 stores in Italy and Japan, which are owned by a separate partnership, with plans for more U.S. locations. Chicago was a no-brainer given that it is a big tourism destination, a transportation hub and a rising restaurant capital, Eataly partners say. The Michelin guide made Chicago its third U.S. city for ratings in 2010, behind New York and San Francisco.
Mall developer Macerich Co., which owns Eataly’s new site, has gone out of its way for the new tenant. It sued to evict Texas de Brazil after the steakhouse’s next-door neighbor, Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN Zone restaurant and bar, closed in 2010.
Eataly’s New York location has been a boon to its neighborhood, helping to boost rents as much as 15 percent in the past two years. River North rents span $50 to $150 a square foot based on proximity to Michigan Avenue. If Chicago’s Eataly takes off, landlords will hope to hike rents in River North, too.
“Eataly will definitely draw some attention,” says Jason Gustaveson, vice president of Stone Real Estate Corp. in Chicago. “Rents in that area are not going down, that’s for sure.”