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They say the restaurant business is tough, and it is. For every new eatery that gets glowing reviews and has tightly packed tables on Saturday night, another one sinks into oblivion. Yet there’s always someone crazy enough or passionate enough to tempt the odds. Including Wendy Gilbert, who recently opened the Savoy Truffle in West Town.
Located two blocks south of North Avenue at 1466 N. Ashland, on a block with a church, a corner grocery, and Tina’s Beauty Salon, the Savoy Truffle has a limited menu and no liquor license. It has only eight tables and only 24 seats–barely enough for a respectable game of musical chairs. Gilbert functions as owner, cook, food buyer, and majordomo. Her sister decorated the interior.
Wicker Park and Bucktown are crammed with dinky, moderately priced, homey restaurants, many run by women. But Gilbert considers her modest little place a personal statement, a high plateau in her life in food. “So many restaurants are this: Bam, bam, bam–you come, you eat, you leave. But coming to me should be different, an experience where, I hope, you remember the time you had as much as the food. I want you to feel like you’re a friend eating in the kitchen of my house–and the one having the most fun is me.”
The sounds of Afro pop are wafting through the Savoy Truffle, and Gilbert, who likes to dance to salsa music in her spare time, pivots in her sandals on her way to the stove in the kitchen. Her multicolored bracelets jangle, and she lets out a whoop. It’s just after 9 AM on an August Wednesday. Gilbert was out late the night before at the Jazz Showcase, but now she’s all energy. “I only need four hours of sleep. This thing about people being tired makes me nuts. What’s the point of being tired? Tired translates to depressed in my book.”
Gilbert, who’s about to turn 38, is loaded down with jewelry–the bracelets, several rings, large gold-loop earrings, and a weighty pendant that looks like a brass tooth. Actually it’s the top of a large bullet that one of her sisters gave her, a piece she wears like a talisman.
She and Adolfo Perales, her dishwasher and cooking assistant, start preparing many of the dishes that will be served through the weekend. “Adolfo, chop up some onions, peel the carrots, and give me some lemon juice,” she says. “And when you peel the potatoes leave two for me.”
She busies herself readying a salad of smoked turkey, Granny Smith apples, and roasted pine nuts, squirting in balsamic vinaigrette from a squeeze bottle. “Today anything goes in restaurants,” she says. “The more outrageous, the better. But the outrageous doesn’t always taste good. I never break the rules. There’s a way to do things–the way I was taught.”
All morning long she moves between the stove and a center island, cooking, talking, occasionally shimmying to the music. Perales, a soft-spoken man in a green T-shirt, is off by the sink, waiting for Gilbert to hand him dirty pans, bowls, and containers. He scrubs them clean when he isn’t fetching her this and that from the large commercial refrigerator.
Moving down a list, Gilbert steams up zucchini and carrots. She quarters some shiitake mushrooms, then sautes them in sherry and chicken stock to produce a mushroom ragout. She makes potato chips, seasoning slivers of potato with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper and sticking them in the oven. Perales hands her bars of white chocolate, which she decorates with purple food coloring and cuts into triangles that will adorn hot-fudge-and-caramel sundaes.
The skin of a tomato becomes a tomato rose for the bruscetta appetizer, an adornment Gilbert borrowed from Brennan’s in New Orleans. Sections of baby eggplant bake while she concocts a stuffing from goat cheese, egg, mushrooms, and onions.
“Now I’m making tomato concasse,” she says. “That’s tomato, white-wine vinegar, sugar, onion, and garlic that’s cooked forever. It’s a French sauce that I put over couscous.”
The back door to the kitchen is open, and Gilbert catches a boy watching her and goes off to have a word with him. He lives in a rear apartment with his siblings and his parents, a family that’s often the subject of conversation.
“We talk all day,” says Gilbert when she comes back. “Adolfo is a very smart man, and on a day-to-day basis he’s a pleasure to be around. He’s very calming, where I am just the opposite. But he does a couple things that piss me off. He squeezes the lemon juice and doesn’t strain it, and he’s late for work a lot. But he’s my Adolfo, so what can I say? I don’t know how he feels about me.”
“Whatever she wants me to do, I do,” Perales says later, then shrugs. “If I don’t do something right she makes me do it over, and she gets mad, excited. But she’s not getting mad directly at me.”
At midday a deliveryman from Wild Game, a company owned by Kay Kharasch, a close friend of Gilbert’s, drops off an order of mushrooms and smoked meats. Gilbert pays the bill immediately by check. “I don’t believe in credit,” she says. Then she resumes her kitchen tasks. She takes out eggs, sugar, and milk to make creme anglaise, a custard sauce for berries. “This is one of those things I hate to do. Anytime you deal with eggs as a thickening agent it gets touchy.”
In walks Leo Witkowski, an air-conditioning repairman. The Savoy Truffle is surviving the summer heat with a window air conditioner that operates poorly or not at all. For three days the restaurant was closed, a note of apology posted on the door. Witkowski has told Gilbert that the unit, located high underneath the canopy over the front door, is in the wrong place to work efficiently, but when he suggested moving it or cutting away the canopy she barked at him.
“Actually, she screamed to high heaven,” says Witkowski later. “All I do now is make the unit work a little better.” So today he just washes out the filter. “Wendy, after you’ve made your first million, I’ll put a compressor in the basement for you. That way it will be pleasant in here.”
“Don’t be put off by appearances,” Gilbert says, laughing. “Leo is a very intelligent man. He overcharges, and he has a bad reputation all over town–but I still use him. What else can I do? I hate it when the air-conditioning breaks.”
“How’s business?” Witkowski asks her.
“Good,” says Gilbert. “But Leo, you haven’t eaten here.”
“There’s no valet,” he says and laughs.
“Leo, there’s free parking at the car shop across the street! You know what this guy’s favorite restaurant is? The Busy Bee–with all that Polish sausage. I cross the street when I walk by I’m so afraid all that fat will rub off on me.”
“How’s your leek soup?” says Witkowski.
“Leo, it’s tomato-leek soup–and it’s wonderful.” She’s fiddling with some sesame noodles in a bowl. “Everything here is wonderful.”
When Gilbert was barely 20, it suddenly came to her that she wanted to become a chef. She still can’t fathom why. “A Jewish girl from Skokie–who knows, a chef?”
Her mother was not the inspiration. When Gilbert was a girl her mother piled the family dinner table with standard ’50s fare–a roast, stewed vegetables, potatoes. “Oh, I cooked,” says her mother. “But no one would ever have called me a cook.” Gilbert remembers not her mother’s skills but that her father loved to eat out at Chicago’s modest bunch of ethnic restaurants.
And it took a while before Gilbert even started cooking. She gave the University of Wisconsin three days to interest her, and dropped out. She stuck around Madison for a year or two, then spent six months traveling in Mexico with an older sister. After that she got a job at a bookstore in Evanston.
But then in the mid-70s she wangled a job as an apprentice to John Snowden, a renowned chef who ran the Dumas Pere l’Ecole de la Cuisine Francais, located in a building near the Glenview train station. Snowden, heavyset and in his 60s, had a teaching kitchen with a dozen stoves, where he imparted classic techniques with memorable hauteur. “He was a crusty old man who cared a lot about what he taught you,” recalls Robert Gordon, a former student. “But if you did something he considered stupid he’d bust your butt–he could be very sarcastic.” More than a few North Shore matrons wept under the strain.
For a year Gilbert lived in a spare room behind the school and toiled for Snowden seven days a week. He lived at the school too, in a big bedroom filled with ancient suits and stacks of gourmet magazines. He also had Afghan hounds that slept with Gilbert. “I walked the dogs, did the laundry, and cleaned the stoves,” she says. Every Saturday night she put on white gloves to wait on students and other patrons who paid $36 a person for the privilege of eating a meal put together by Snowden.
“I can’t say he was nice to me,” she says. “He was drinking heavily, and he was scary a lot. But I was young, and I learned from him. He was a mentor. One day he went into the hospital for spinal surgery, and he left me in charge. Part of my job was to visit him in the hospital every day and to sneak in a fifth of Martell. That’s when I split and never came back.” She never saw him again. She remembers that he died around 1980.
Next she enrolled in the chef-training program at the Washburne Trade School at 31st and Kedzie, then run by the Chicago Board of Education. There she entered a different world. “The other students were basically blue collar–line cooks and grill cooks from the west and south sides without sophisticated palates. I was one of the few women.” Gilbert is remembered by her instructors for her talent and her passion. “She was always concerned how this or that was made,” says Ron Martin, who taught an introductory course on French cooking. “It seemed she was really fascinated with food.”
During her second year she was on a team that entered a National Restaurant Association competition at McCormick Place and took the gold medal. She was also hired as a cook at Cafe Provencal in Evanston and at Gordon in River North. She didn’t like the snotty waiters at Gordon Sinclair’s temple to nouvelle cuisine, but she appreciates how much she learned under chef John Terczak.
But by the time she finished at Washburne, in 1980, she was tired of cooking. She took time off to travel, then joined the family business, manufacturing boxes that fit on vending trucks and chrome plating truck parts. She helped set up warehouses in the midwest to sell replacement doors and hoods to truckers. She also got married for a year and a half, something she doesn’t like to talk about.
She says her business venture was successful, but after four years she again felt the urge to move on. So she started a catering company out of her house and named it Savoy Truffle after a John Lennon song on the Beatles’ White Album. She catered some big parties but specialized in business lunches. Her steadiest customers were some stock traders at PaineWebber; she’d personally deliver them sloppy Joes and other delicacies (“I drew the line at macaroni and cheese”). But when the traders had to cut back on expenses, Gilbert decided to become footloose again. “I hadn’t had a vacation in three years. I’d gone through a divorce, and my dad had died. I went to India.”
Gilbert arrived in 1991 and spent several months toying with the idea of setting up a business there. She flew to Chicago, then returned to India, expecting to settle in Delhi. But she wound up in Udaipur, a city surrounded by mountains north of Bombay. “I was sitting in a hotel garden in Udaipur surrounded by palm trees, and it was so unbelievably romantic that I said to myself, this is where I should be.” She rented the garden and turned it into a small restaurant serving mostly comfort food for Westerners–omelettes, potato pancakes with applesauce, stuffed baby eggplant.
But from the outset there were difficulties. In December 1992 Hindu fanatics bombed an ancient Muslim mosque in the state of Uttar Pradesh, spurring riots all over India. The day Gilbert opened her restaurant Udaipur was under military curfew. “I had a full house, and I was clean out of food. When I ran out for milk and eggs, soldiers trailed me down the street.” She also had unwelcome visitors: “Monkeys would waltz into the kitchen to steal my tomatoes.”
The Indian women were fairly subservient, and some locals became suspicious of the brassy Gilbert. She relied increasingly on a rickshaw driver named Harish. “Harish could tell Wendy the way things were,” says Jean-Marc Giboux, a French-born photographer who was on assignment in Udaipur and fell in love with Gilbert.
When the restaurant began to prosper Gilbert leased a small inn on Udaipur’s picturesque Lake Pichola. She installed a tandoor oven and operated both the restaurant and the guest rooms, the bulk of her customers continuing to be foreigners. “To those unaccustomed to the country it can get intense, with the crowds and all the poverty,” says Giboux. “Wendy’d take charge, playing the hostess. Harish would go get guests from the bus and train stations, and later he’d take them around to see the sights. We called the place Club W.” Giboux remembers with enormous pleasure the holiday season of 1993, when all the guests holed up at Club W spent Christmas together. “We became like family. We exchanged gifts and had New Year’s Eve under the stars overlooking the lake, with a big spread of food.”
“In a sense I was very happy in Udaipur,” says Gilbert. “I was cooking, meeting people from all over the world, and hearing stories you wouldn’t believe. But I’m a very social person, and I missed everybody. Nobody ever came to visit me. My friend Kay got married. My other best friend had a baby. It came time to return home, and so I did.” Gilboux had also been reassigned to LA.
After the air-conditioning repairman leaves, Gilbert walks outside, nodding to a man in his undershirt sitting on a milk crate. She gets in her small, dusty Toyota and sets off to buy ingredients. It’s early afternoon and the traffic is light, so she makes good time on Ashland. At Richard’s Packing Company, a meat wholesaler on Paulina near Diversey, she buys almost a hundred dollars’ worth of chicken, pork, and beef.
“Richard’s deals with all the big boys,” she explains. “They’re reputable, and they’re nice to me. Not everyone is. When I first opened there was this one company on South Water Market that was going to supply me with produce, milk, and cheese. So the first delivery arrives, and I notice that a carton of milk I ordered is sweating. It’s been on the truck too long–any fool could see that. “Get this out of here,’ I said. “What do you take me for, an imbecile?’ Half the other orders were wrong too–and they were overcharging for the baby eggplant.”
She switched to Stanley’s Fruits and Vegetables, on the corner of Elston and North Avenue. Today she moves quickly down that store’s aisles, foraging for arugula, endive, watercress, and basil. She has a congenial word with the retail manager and pushes through the checkout line, where she gets a 10 percent discount.
The next stop is D’Amato’s Bakery on Grand near Racine. “Bread and coffee are the most important elements in any restaurant. They are the first and last impressions a diner is going to have. I don’t care how good a meal is–you won’t forget bad coffee or bad bread.” The owner, Nick D’Amato, slips Gilbert’s loaves into a bag. She asks him when he’s going to eat at the Truffle, and he laughs. “I couldn’t come until late,” he says. “My wife makes me go shopping.” Gilbert retorts, “Cheap excuse.”
Back at the restaurant she’s amazed that her coffee order hasn’t arrived. “When are you coming?” she barks into the company’s answering machine. At 2:45 she walks briefly to her house, just around the corner from the Savoy Truffle, but she’s soon back in the kitchen, browning skinless chicken and rolling pork tenderloin in black peppercorn. “I can’t stay home for long. I get too antsy there.”
There are two phone calls all day. One’s from her sister, who’s leaving for vacation. They start arguing. “Gail, I know you’re leaving for London, but don’t be mad,” says Gilbert before the conversation ends abruptly. The second is from Giboux, who’s come from Los Angeles several times to visit her and now is moving to Chicago to live with her.
No one calls to make reservations. “Bad sign,” says Gilbert. But late that afternoon a Mr. Goodman calls to ask if Gilbert will be in the restaurant tonight. “Oh, Mr. Goodman, I’m here every night we’re open,” she says. “Are you coming in? . . . Oh, good, good. . . . See you at six then.” Then she calls her mother to find out if, as she suspects, Goodman is a friend of hers. Her mother is out, so Gilbert leaves a message on her machine.
At 4:30 in walks Richard Freeman, a friend who doubles as Gilbert’s waiter. “Should I punch in, boss?” he asks irreverently. A 35-year-old PhD candidate in anthropology who holds a day job as a photo assistant, Freeman is wearing a T-shirt that reads “I get my drugs at Cosmos.” Gilbert is not amused. “Richard, your T-shirt isn’t going to cut it. I told you that you need a white shirt.” Freeman slips on a plain T-shirt, puts some jazz CDs on, and sets the tables.
Gilbert prefers the flatware in the regular left-to-right order but lumped together on a napkin on the right, with the napkin opening like a book. She also insists that Freeman serve beverages off a tray and that each drink have a straw with a bit of paper covering the end. “Wendy’s finicky,” says Freeman.
“Adolfo, wash this,” says Gilbert, handing Perales a dirty bowl. At last the coffee arrives, and Gilbert sighs.
“Tell me about that concasse again, Wendy,” says Freeman. “Everybody wants to know what the hell it is.”
Last December Gilbert was walking Giboux’ dog down Ashland when she noticed a for-rent sign in a storefront. It had been a harrowing time for her–she’d been hospitalized for two months with a severe case of pancreatitis brought on by a gallbladder attack upon her return from India.
The space was tiny–only 750 square feet–but it had a fully equipped kitchen. She’d always hoped to someday open a restaurant in her hometown. “In the moments it took me to walk that dog home I knew I wanted the place. Sure it was small, but I was used to that from India. The size was a plus–I wanted a place where I could be in charge, where I’d cook the food and tell the waiter just how to put the watercress on the plate. It was a control issue with me.”
She rented the storefront in February for what she describes as an “unbelievably cheap” rate. But when she gave her sisters a tour of the premises they were horrified. “Wendy, there’s nothing redeeming here,” said Gail, president of a family car-parts firm as well as an interior decorator. “This is so dingy. What’s wrong with you?”
Gilbert felt sick when Gail’s husband knocked on the low ceiling and discovered it was false, but when she saw that above it was a pressed-tin ceiling she burst out, “We’ve got character!”
Over the next few months Gail helped her sister make the most of the storefront. The tin ceiling and the walls were painted gold. The speckled linoleum floor was replaced with squares of red, purple, mustard, and turquoise. Fabric rectangles with a fruit motif went up inside the windows. Usama Haddad, a hairdresser by day, put his pastels and acrylics on the walls. The bathroom was painted purple, and framed postcards, mirrors, and candleholders were hung on its walls. Gilbert found white plates and flatware at auctions. An awning company picked from the yellow pages put up “what looked like a giant saddle shoe,” according to Gilbert; a second try produced a simpler awning that pleased her.
Meanwhile Gilbert was crafting a business plan. “I laid out a work schedule, including how many hours each task would take me, how many customers I’d need, and how much they would have to spend.” She lined up purveyors. The menu she came up with had hints of the exotic–smoked scallops and wild-rice salad over gomae, steamed and marinated spinach. But she wanted the dishes to be understandable to the average person. She wound up with only five entrees and six appetizers, counting the house salad, all of it relatively cheap and easy for her to get to the table.
In April Gilbert’s landlord threatened to evict her because she’d billed the woman for stove, glass, and radiator repairs. Gilbert ate the expense. “It wasn’t worth a fight,” she says. In total she spent about $10,000–a pittance for a restaurant start-up.
She lined up friends like Freeman and Amy Wasserman, a sometime pastry chef employed at the Board of Trade, to be waiters. Perales was working for the painting and drywall contractor, and Gilbert offered him the kitchen job at $1 more an hour than he was making. “I think she realized that I was a good worker and that I’d obey her,” says Perales. Now 47, he’d been a steelworker and a school maintenance man but had never worked in a restaurant.
The Savoy Truffle officially opened on June 8. “Ten minutes before opening I was on the floor hyperventilating,” says Gilbert. “It was the moment of truth. It was, well, Wendy, let’s see what you can do. That first night some girls I knew from high school came in, and my mother’s accountant brought in a group. This man I knew from salsa dancing was driving by, and he says he wants to stop by. ‘By all means,’ I said. ‘Stop by, stop by.’ Still, I gave away more food than I sold that night.”
And so the Savoy Truffle joined 4,579 other restaurants in the Chicago area.
* * *
“I’m Seymour Goodman,” says an older, bald, prosperous-looking man as he steps into the Savoy Truffle promptly at six o’clock, accompanied by his wife and a neighbor.
Gilbert appears dressed in a white chef’s coat, an apron, black jeans, and boots. “I think you know my mom, but I don’t know you–at least not yet,” she says.
“Oh, that’s OK,” says Goodman. “Can I sit anyplace?”
“Why not this lovely spot over here?” says Gilbert, guiding them to a table in front.
Gilbert regularly comes out into the dining room. “I bow to every customer. I’m the most appreciative businessperson you ever met. Nobody leaves this place without knowing me.” But she adds, “You welcome people and then leave them alone to eat. You only sit down after they are done. Otherwise it’s rude.”
As soon as the diners are seated, Freeman moves in, distributing menus, taking drink orders–water, iced tea, or noncaffeinated sodas that Gilbert calls “hippie pops.” Freeman sets out the bread from a big basket with an iron grip shaped like a fish. (“I hate this basket,” he says later. “It makes me feel like an idiot.”) He describes the evening’s special, angel-hair pasta with pesto, then vanishes.
Goodman appears in the kitchen, wanting to use the facilities. “Oh, Mr. Goodman, you’ve heard about my bathroom,” says Gilbert, who’s standing by the stove.
He’s heading back to the dining room when Gilbert calls out “Great bathroom, huh Mr. Goodman?” Goodman nods, then asks for a price list for the prints on the restaurant walls. Gilbert has had a falling-out with the artist and tells Goodman she thinks the work is overpriced.
The phone in the kitchen rings. “Is Seymour Goodman there?” says a sharp voice. “This is Wendy’s mother. Tell her Seymour Goodman is one of my stockbrokers.”
Freeman takes the orders: a plate of sesame noodles with vegetables, an order of the eggplant, the turkey salad, and an appetizer. Gilbert assembles the dishes, steaming the hot orders.
Toward seven o’clock the restaurant starts to fill with other patrons. Two young women and a man appear, carrying a six-pack of ale, which Freeman sticks in the refrigerator. (Gilbert can’t get a liquor license because she has only one bathroom.) A local art-gallery owner and her boyfriend stop in.
The door is open to Ashland. It’s muggy, but cool enough to leave the air-conditioning off. Gilbert notices a man standing alone in the entryway looking inside, and she goes out to talk to him. He’s Polish and lives on her street. She urges him to come inside for dinner, but he declines.
Gilbert steps inside to sell the Goodman table on dessert. She says only 20 percent of restaurant customers buy dessert, but her salesmanship can raise the rate to 75 percent. Yet she talks them into only one pot de creme.
Lionel Hampton is on the stereo. “Get rid of that stuff,” she tells Freeman. “It sounds like people are supposed to take their clothes off.” Then she upbraids Perales for being too slow getting chicken from the refrigerator. “Come on, Adolfo, what are you doing?” And she cooks, sauteeing pork tenderloin and heating up the chicken.
Goodman sticks his head through the window.
“Oh, Mr. Goodman,” she says. “Thank you so much for coming. Have a card.” Goodman takes a handful of business cards, and Gilbert gives his wife the sesame-noodle recipe. On their way out the Goodmans write some effusive comments in the guest book (“Great! Great! Great! Seymour and Norma Goodman”). Gilbert is delighted. “The Goodmans are happy. They will give my mother a good report.”
The tables slowly empty. Freed up, Gilbert sits with her customers, gabbing with the gallery owner and the young salesman who lives across the street and eats at the Savoy Truffle once a week. “It’s convenient,” he says. “I don’t cook much, and Wendy has a lot of neighborhood gossip–which is no surprise, because she talks so much.”
Gilbert, Perales, and Freeman close up at ten o’clock. Gilbert’s going salsa dancing with Freeman’s sister.
In 1994 the nation’s full-service restaurants saw their real sales, with inflation factored out, increase 4 percent to $84 billion a year, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant and food-service consultancy. This year real sales are running at nearly the same brisk pace. “Business is booming,” says Colleen McShane, executive director of the Illinois Restaurant Association, rattling off a list of established Chicago operators who’ve launched new places in the last few months.
Launching a restaurant as a newcomer is always hazardous, says Dennis Lombardi, Technomic’s executive vice president. “If you’re an independent, the risks are high. You have no brand equity. You’re an unknown commodity. Will you speak to the consumer? Maybe your site is bad, or your menu is targeted wrong, or your prices are off. Your staff may be poorly trained. Or there’s too much competition. Or you’re undercapitalized. If you’re a skilled operator you can reduce these risk factors, but it’s no wonder that one out of two restaurants fails after three or four years.”
One way to cut the risk is to open small and keep the quality high, a strategy that’s exemplified by the operators who are filling Bucktown, Wicker Park, and their environs with modest, inexpensive places along the lines of the Savoy Truffle. “These closet-size, counterculture restaurants–except with better offerings–with women in charge are a trend now,” says Chicago magazine reviewer Jill Rohde. Observers say the trend has its roots in the needs of the young, well-educated, health-conscious neighborhood residents. “People there don’t want to spend a lot of money or travel far for good food,” says Erwin Drechsler, the chef and co-owner of Erwin on North Halsted.
In 1989 Sheila McCoy, an IBM computer trainer, turned Leo’s Lunchroom, an old breakfast place on West Division, into a popular hangout for the hip, building in part on the skills of the night cook, Donna Knezek. Last year Knezek split and launched her own place, the Bite Cafe, at 1039 N. Western. Jane’s, owned by hostess Arden Nelson and chef Jeff Auld, opened in Bucktown, at 1655 W. Cortland, in June 1994. This June a 32-year-old chef named Katherine August, a veteran of a couple tony downtown restaurants, established Wildfire down the street from Leo’s, at 1924 W. Division.
Arguably the most successful of the bunch is Wishbone. In 1990 Joel Nickson, a longtime hotel cook, raised $30,000 from friends and family and made over what he describes as “a little greasy spoon” at 1800 W. Grand. Within a year, partly on the basis of positive reviews of the economical Southern-style cuisine, Wishbone receipts jumped from $4,800 to $19,000 a week. In 1992 Nickson started a second, 180-seat restaurant across from Oprah’s Harpo studios on West Washington that has been an even bigger success.
Such rewards don’t come easily, if at all. “You work your buns off in these places, and you don’t make much money,” says Chicago magazine’s Rohde. “You have to love it.” Donna Knezek, whose Bite Cafe is the same size as the Savoy Truffle, says, “Someone who does this has a masochistic tendency, because you’re talking a 70- or 80-hour week. But there’s no work in corporate America anymore. Why not a restaurant? It’s yours, and you can open up for less than $10,000.”
“Eventually all chefs want to start something of their own,” says Wildfire’s August. “With large companies you get lost in the system. For myself one driving motivation was to have the freedom to change the menu without summoning 20 people to a tasting. I know I’m a fabulous chef. Now I have the freedom to be creative.” She also thinks women are better at running a small house. “We’re better able to deal with the long hours, the personalities, and the stress of it all.”
Gilbert recoils at the suggestion that more women choosing to operate little restaurants in marginal Chicago neighborhoods constitutes some sort of trend. “There are more women everywhere–in business, in fashion, in film. What’s the big deal here?” It also riles her that she’s being lumped in a category with other near-northwest-side restaurants. “I don’t do buffalo wings,” she says dismissively. “I take my food seriously. I’m no trend.”
One factor that often means the difference between success and failure for a small restaurant is good press. “We didn’t get reviewed for three or four months after we started,” reports Wishbone’s Nickson. “When the notices appeared, let me tell you they helped a lot. More than a lot.”
Knowing this, Amy Wasserman persuaded Gilbert to let her send a promotional mailing to the city’s newspapers and magazines as soon as the Savoy Truffle was open. On July 11 they sent out a menu and a flowery letter from Gilbert. “I feel strongly that excellent food should be enjoyed in wonderful surroundings with service to match, and I believe I have succeeded in these endeavors,” she wrote. “As for food, I have an array of unsurpassed choices.”
Chicago magazine’s dining editor, Penny Pollack, had already heard of the Savoy Truffle, and at the end of June she and three companions ate there anonymously (“I never make reservations, and I have credit cards in two different names,” she says). She found it “a delightful little place.” She assigned Jill and Ron Rohde to check out the premises for the Daily Herald. They went one night in July, accompanied by two friends. They liked the food, especially the desserts, and they enjoyed Gilbert. “She did lots of schmoozing,” says Jill. “While I normally don’t like to be fussed over, she was quite engaging.”
Gilbert was nervous about the review. “Here’s the thing, what if they say something bad?” she said. “I’m afraid. Who wants to be judged? Who wants to stand in the middle of the street on a soapbox and take your clothes off?” Yet she was also excited. “I know people’ll be looking at the Daily Herald from coast to coast,” she joked.
“Could any restaurant be smaller or snazzier?” wrote the Rohdes in the Herald’s August 11 edition. “This charming eight-table bandbox . . . is like hanging at the home of your most fun, flamboyant friend.” They hailed the menu as “quirky, enticing, and reasonably priced” and called the pot de creme “heaven.” The notice was accompanied by a photograph of Gilbert dressed in her cooking whites, lying on the tile floor next to a plate of berries. Yet the review caused barely a blip in Gilbert’s business. “I can’t imagine people from Arlington Heights coming down to Ashland Avenue,” Jill Rohde later observed.
Over the summer the Savoy Truffle’s business built steadily, if slowly. Gilbert’s friends frequently showed up. Kay Kharasch would materialize about once a week, often with a group. Gilbert’s sisters appeared often, as did her mother. “Doris loves it,” says Gilbert. “She can come in and talk to strangers and hear wonderful things about her daughter.” (Doris says, “Who do you think keeps Wendy in business? It’s her mother. When this is over I’m going to weigh 2,000 pounds.”) And a cluster of regulars developed.
One rule of thumb in the business is that one “turn of the tables”–getting the same number of customers in an evening as you have seats–means you’re only breaking even. To make money requires two or two and a half turns. “With two times you can draw a salary,” says Donna Knezek. “Otherwise you don’t.” Erwin Drechsler, whose original restaurant, Metropolis Cafe on North Avenue, had 32 seats, says you can get by with less than two turns if your overhead is low enough. “But two turns means you’re busy, and you do need to get volume in the door to make money.”
The Savoy Truffle saw its first full turn of the tables–24 customers–on August 18. On September 10 it had 33 diners. That was during the Around the Coyote art festival, though Gilbert says the customers that night weren’t festival-goers. She ran out of food and had to serve soup to the last couple of the evening.
In late September she said she was generally serving between 12 and 14 meals a night and running somewhere below the break-even point. She said the gap was narrowing but wouldn’t say how wide it was.
She didn’t like the two-turns-of-the-tables measure. “Who told you that?” she demanded. “It’s wrong.” She said having fewer customers often functions to her advantage, because then she can take the time to push the average check–$12 to $15 per person–higher by selling appetizers or dessert. “Often I can do better with 18 people than with 33 people. It all depends.”
On October 4 a second review ran, this time by food writer Steven Pratt in the Tribune food section. Pratt called the Savoy Truffle “a catchy little tune of a restaurant” and awarded it three forks out of a possible four.
The prize for any local eatery is to win a place among the 125 restaurants listed in the back of Chicago. “We are the standard-bearer in terms of ratings,” says Penny Pollack. Unfortunately for restaurants like the Savoy Truffle, Pollack is reluctant to include tiny venues. “I worry about giving a hole-in-the-wall place a whole lot of publicity when it has only 24 tables and a limited menu. The impact would be too great.” Yet she didn’t rule out blessing the Savoy Truffle with a listing, and in September she plugged it on WGN radio.
The additional reviews have brought in a lot of people, and Gilbert is now limiting the number of customers each night to 24. “I don’t want to screw up,” she says.
On a recent Sunday morning, when the restaurant is normally closed, a stout woman in a late-model car saw the metal grates in front pushed apart and stopped to look in the window. Seeing the woman’s face pressed against the glass, Gilbert beckoned her inside.
“I heard about you on the radio,” said the woman. “I used to know this neighborhood. It’s all Mexican now, but it’s becoming yuppie. I’ll be back for dinner.”
Gilbert handed the woman a card and encouraged her to return. But after the woman left she said, “That woman, she’s a tourist. I’ll serve her, but she’s not a real customer, a customer who would be my friend.”
Gilbert is sanguine about her prospects. “So many restaurants fail, but I won’t. Why would I? What would be the point? That would be embarrassing. I set myself up to succeed, not to fail. I never fail–at least by my definition of failure. For 18 years I’ve wanted to open a restaurant my way and in Chicago. I’ve done that. We’re up and going. I have a three-year lease. Now I’m just coasting.”
But in the next breath she says, “I always need to start something new. When something’s done it’s done. It becomes a rut, and I lose interest and move on.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Mike Tappin.