A Very Long Winded History of The Bourgeois Pig!
As it is Recorded in No Other Place, Except Perhaps in My Head of Course, I Thought it Might Be of Some Value or Interest to Record the History of The Pig, in Greater Detail than Most Were Ever Aware or Perhaps Ever Even Cared...this is the Tale of The Bourgeois Pig as I Saw It.
While living on Russian Hill in San Francisco, I used to frequent a local, independent coffeehouse for a mocha and a read on my days off from waiting tables. It was on one of these excursions, as I sipped my Ghirardelli mocha and marveled at the long line of patrons at this cafe, that the lightbulb came on, and I had my eureka moment. And thus, The Pig was theoretically conceived!
An old friend of mine, Paula, suggested that Chicago would be the perfect location for a café and that I might want to check it out, so I did. She was right of course, San Francisco was way too expensive, and Phoenix was way too hot, but Chicago...Chicago was just right, and it had the historical factor that I so loved. And so, it began. I searched high and low for the perfect location, eventually stumbling accidentally upon a quaint little one room shop that was a stones throw from DePaul University and across the street from the then Children's Memorial Hospital! The location was at 748 W. Fullerton Ave in the heart of the charming Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.
What better location could one ask for? The only drawback was that it was on a year-to-year only lease. This was a very risky proposal because I could have massive success only to lose my lease after a year or two and have to find a new location. What to do? I decided to take that chance and see what the fates had in store!
Borrowing money from friends and family, the Pig was opened on a shoestring budget on May 15th, 1993, with my last $100 in the cash drawer to make change, and nothing in the bank. At just 27 years of age, I was determined to make it work, come hell or high water! For at least the first 6 months I was the only employee, working open to close 7 days a week, 6:30 AM to 11:00 PM, (midnight on Fridays and Saturdays). It wasn't easy. In fact, I eventually realized that this wasn't sustainable after I fell asleep and nearly hit a car on the freeway driving home, and again dozed off and successfully hit a curb on my way in the next morning! It was at this point that I hired my first employee, one of my regular customers, Gina, who enthusiastically offered to open in the mornings and help out.
As luck would have it, my lease was renewed several times without fail; and then, one day as I was coming into work, I noticed that there was a lady gardening in the front yard of 738 W. Fullerton, just 3 doors down from our 748 location. Since the previous owner of this now closed location who had an antique store, had recently passed away, I asked if this particular store was for rent? With a twinkle in her eye, she asked what I had in mind? I told her about the café, and she invited me inside. The rest is history! Gail, who had recently inherited the building, liked my proposal and offered me a 5 year lease to which I happily agreed. As fate would have it, I encountered her first and she liked my idea!
As I contemplated my situation, a thought occurred to me. Perhaps I could open up a different concept at this location? Since 748 prohibited food preparation of any kind, what if I opened a sandwich shop at the 738 location and kept The Pig at 748 as a café? Gail didn't mind, and so The Scarlet Pumpernickel was born! It was a little strange running back and forth all day, taking sandwiches to people who ordered from the café, and coffee to the people who ordered sandwiches at The Pumpernickel, but it did work for about a year. At some point though, I thought how crazy it was to pay for two rents, two electrics, two phones, two gas bills, and most expensive of all, two sets of staff! It was at that point, probably about the 2nd year of the Pumpernickel, that I decided not to renew my lease at 748 and to move the entire operation into the 738 location. As is typical with me, I did it overnight. We might have closed for a day, I can't remember, but we got it done quick, and then boom, we were now selling sandwiches, salads and soup at the Bourgeois Pig!
We continued to gain support from the community as they slowly discovered us, getting busier and busier every year. Our sandwiches were very popular, however our modest beginnings offered only six sandwich choices: The Tale of Two Turkeys, The Merchant of Venice, The Hamlet, The Scarlet Pumpernickel, The Garden Party and The Old Man & the Sea; and two salads: The House Salad and The Caesar salads. Back then our full sandwiches sold for about $5.00 and $2.95 for a half! Crazy.
We continued on like this for several years until just before the 5th year of our lease, when Gail approached me and informed me that she was going to retire soon and move to California! She inquired if I would like to exercise my right of first refusal that I had negotiated during the lease formation and purchase the building? Well of course I wanted to buy the building! The only problem was, how to do it? Business was good, but not THAT good. One night, soon after the proposal, I was at a party and I remember describing my situation to a friend. As luck would have it once again, someone overheard me talking to my friend and interjected that he didn't mean to eavesdrop but he thought that he could help me, and gave me his card. I was surprised to learn that he was a mortgage broker who does SBA loans for business owners just like me. Skeptical but interested, we met at the Pig later that week, and with a little creative financing we made it happen, and the rest is history.
Another interesting opportunity occurred when I received a call from a television studio about an interest in featuring The Bourgeois Pig on a show that showcased six small but popular restaurants in Chicago, that show was "Rachel Rays Tasty Travels: Chicago"! I couldn't believe it, this was incredible! We filmed the show, but what was even more incredible was the amount of business that we received after the show aired, our business doubled within a year or two as the show aired again and again with reruns. People were coming in and telling us that they saw The Pig on the show and came in because of that. I was so thankful.
Soon after this we had the opportunity to rent the entire building next door, effectively doubling our footprint and our seating capacity upstairs and down, as well as gaining a beautiful front patio, complete with a large shade tree. It was at this time that I decided to undergo some renovations, mostly embellishments, and system upgrades, that would tie the two halves together.
Not long after the renovations were completed, probably around the year 2010, the hospital across the street, with some 4000+ employees, and numerous visiting families daily, moved to a brand new location downtown, to become the new Lurie Children's Hospital. Well, we all knew this was coming for the past several years, but we didn't really expect for the neighborhood to fizzle like it did. The now vacant hospital, large and empty, sat abandoned and crumbling for several years as many businesses in the surrounding area continued to die and fade away. Somehow we held on, thanks to our acquired popularity, though we started a slow decline as well, surprisingly not drastic, but slowly declining nonetheless, after the loss of such a huge customer base across the street.
Eventually, after several years, rumor had it that this huge chunk of prime Lincoln Park property was going to be developed into several mid-rise, residential towers and a new spa, fitness and retail area. We were all excited to finally be regaining a new customer base and to be removing this crumbling hulk of a building from our front view! After many months of community meetings and modifications to the design and height, the demolition phase finally began. The demolition process took many months to complete, and then once again the property sat vacant and empty for probably another year, but at least it was gone.
During this whole rebuilding process, an old customer and friend, a doctor who used to frequent The Pig several times a day for coffee and lunch, and coffee again after lunch, randomly popped in for a coffee one day. I hadn't seen him for several years at this point. He was in a good mood as usual, and asked me how things were? I told him it was much slower after the hospital left, and that I was having a bad day because I had just found out that my truck had been booted by the City, and that I had a catering due in about an hour downtown! I was very distressed to say the least. Without pause he asked if I needed a car for the day? Obviously I did, but who lends out cars at the drop of a hat to someone they haven't seen in years? He did. He insisted I use his car for the day and I couldn't believe it.
We immediately went to retrieve the car, and he asked more questions about the business and plans that I had hoped to complete had I the wherewithal. I then left to complete the catering job and was instructed to return the car when I didn't need it anymore. At the end of the day, when I was finished with the car I brought it back to his house and thanked him profusely for his kindness. He insisted on giving me a ride back to the Pig and inquired more about my wine bar and speakeasy idea. It was then that we agreed to meet again and discuss a possible partnership since he had always loved The Pig and this idea of mine intrigued him.
And so, a partnership was born, though little did either one of us know what was lurking just around the corner. We began the long, slow process of getting legalities and architectural plans drawn up and righting the course of this drifting vessel. Then, in 2018 or so, the project across the street was completed and both businesses and residents began to move into the towers and the surrounding buildings. Although it helped business somewhat, it was nothing like before. And then the pandemic struck.
There had been several times throughout the life of this business where I had been forced to work a lot, but nothing, nothing even comes close to the sacrifices made to survive during the pandemic. We had no choice but to lay off nearly the entire staff. Sales plummeted. Dining in was no longer an option. Fortunately we had two aces in our pocket, one: a product that was both highly desirable and travelled well...coffee and sandwiches, and two: I could work my ass off, eliminating or at least significantly reducing labor costs. Without exaggeration, I worked open to close, every single day, for 385 days.
Through the riots, boarding up our windows and doors, through the various rules and social distancing requirements, masks, fees, regulations, everything...we didn't close a single day! We hired a few new people, both of our kids worked some shifts to help out at times, but we made it! Like most restaurants, our business model was reduced to 3rd party delivery and takeout, plus the occasional curbside pickup. The delivery commissions were ludicrous at nearly 30%.
While business was slower we took the opportunity to improve the business. We returned to our roots with a renewed focus on quality and excellent service. We also made use of this time to secure the required permits and to make the required modifications and improvements necessary to secure the liquor license.
Now, nearly 30 years later, we have survived the great pandemic, leaner and meaner; during which time we completed our second major rehab of the Pig in its history. As we navigate the new roaring twenties, we are making final preparations to open our latest lovechild, a period speakeasy called The Gatsby.