Micheline Maynard is journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She most recently led Changing Gears, a public radio project exploring the reinvention of the industrial Midwest, and was previously Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times.
Barry Sorkin is an Illinois native with no formal food background. Here's how he opened one of the city's most successful restaurants.
Smoque BBQ in Chicago is the closest thing in the restaurant business to an overnight success. Even before it opened in December 2006, local food writers were already buzzing about newcomer in Irving Park on the city’s Northwest side.
Its Texas-style barbeque, including brisket and ribs, has landed it international attention. It won a 2012 Michelin Bib Gourmand award as one of the city’s best values.
Barry Sorkin, 42, one of Smoque’s five co-founders, had no formal food background when the place opened, save for a few stints at restaurants in high school and college.
How did you start Smoque?
I grew up in Skokie [Illinois], and with a couple of very short-term exceptions, I’ve lived in the city for the better part of 20 years. I went to a lot of places but I ended up graduating from Columbia College [Chicago] with a degree in journalism. I temped for a while and got a job with an IT consulting job.
I was there for about eight years, and I started thinking about doing something else after about one year. I was advancing in my career, getting promoted and doing well, but it was leading to something I didn’t see myself doing. It seemed very accidental and it was nothing I was very interested in.
[At the IT firm] I had a clique of entrepreneurial-minded people. We talked for seven years about doing something, and when I said, ‘do you want in?’ they said, ‘yes!’
I thought Chicago was desperately lacking in good barbeque. I’d been to Austin, I’d been to Kansas City, and I wondered, 'why doesn’t Chicago have something like that?' It’s not to say it didn’t have barbeque places, but they were not doing it the way I wanted to do it.
My uncle [Al Sherman] and I took a handful of side trips. When we went to Austin, we ate at 18 places in three days.
What was the reaction when you went looking for financing?
There was a lot of skepticism. I knew somebody who was a banker at a small community bank who agreed to meet with us for an informational interview. He and other bankers gave us the same response: "You’re starting a restaurant with a new concept that you’ve never done before?"
Then, we wrote an incredibly detailed business plan. Out of four banks we applied to, three gave us offers. It was interesting to see that the research made a difference to them.
How did you pick your location? It’s not downtown or in a tourist area.
My wife and I moved to the neighborhood three years earlier, and you can’t live in this neighborhood without realizing it desperately needs restaurants.
But it was incredibly convenient going to and from the city from the northern suburbs, the western suburbs, it’s not far from O’Hare, and it’s near an L stop. We knew it was good location: we didn’t know how good it was.
You were featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network very early on. What impact did that have?
It really changed the world for us. It’s hard to know where we’d be right now without that. We were doing what at the time was good business. But that just took it all to a completely different level.
Suddenly, we became a tourist destination. For the first time, we started to get out of town customers. Usually on a holiday, your business slows down, But, if you’re a destination, people are in town to eat at your place.
Who eats at Smoque?
They come from all economic levels, all cultural backgrounds. We’ve had people from every state. We have people who live in Sicily, who do business here and make a point to stop in. I see such a diverse group of people sitting next to each other – people who wouldn’t even make eye contact with each other are exchanging food and trying each others plates.
You’ve gotten tons of support from other restaurant owners.
Ina Pinkney [known as The Breakfast Queen] was probably our first customer. I’d never met her, never spoken to her, never been to her restaurant. We literally opened our doors and a grandmotherly looking figure walks in.
She said, “Come over here and sit down” and starts giving me advice: You have to close on Monday. Here’s the name and number for the guy you’re going to use for ventilation. Here’s the guy who’s going to clean your grease trap. For whatever reason, she took me under her wing and decided to make me her project.
The restaurant business is such a unique experience that you do have camaraderie with anyone else who does it.
But there are some challenges, such your neighbors.
We’re in a commercial building that’s on the border of a very residential neighborhood. Some of the neighbors were concerned about how it was going to affect their way of life. Some people want to see [the neighborhood] grow and some want it to stay the same. There are arguments for both points of view.
Our alderman Ariel Reboyras was in a difficult position when we moved in. We wanted to add an outdoor patio, but we had a handful of neighbors who were really adamantly opposed to it.
He said, 'Do me a favor, let’s take this slow.' We went the first four years without outdoor seating. We just waited. And then we said to him, 'we’re going to make it nice looking, we’re going to close it down early, we’re going to do what we can do to make it a positive thing.' He said, 'That’s reasonable – keep it small, keep it quiet and we’ll do it.'
A lot of out-of-towners visit Smoque. What else do you recommend they do in Chicago?
Walk the neighborhoods. I like Andersonville a lot, I like Lincoln Square a lot. I used to live in Ravenswood, so I like it there a lot. I’m not big on hip and trendy, I’m more interested in authentic and casual and laid back.
I always tell people to take the architectural boat tour. It’s a great way to see the city from the river. It explains how the downtown area came to be what it is.
Beyond that, my best advice is where to eat. I almost always tell them to go to Cemitas Puebla, and either Urban Belly or Belly Shack [both owned by Bill Kim] and Vito and Nick’s for pizza. These are not always a convenient place to go eat, but these places are worth going to see.
I’d also send people to Manny’s [a political hangout.] It’s not a New York deli – anyone from New York is going to be disappointed in it, but it’s the quintessential Chicago deli.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user surlygirl.