We are living in the Golden Age of restaurants. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans spend nearly half of their food budget eating at restaurants, rather than shopping at grocery stores. This fact stands in stark contrast to the greater trend in retail, which shows brick-and-mortar storefronts struggling against online competition and skyrocketing rent. Yet, success in the restaurant business is far from guaranteed. With more options for high quality food than ever before, restaurants new and old are rethinking their place in urban settings.
Though Chicago may be best known for deep-dish pizza and hotdogs, the food scene in the past decade has been defined more by several highly experimental restaurants such as the Michelin three-star micro-gastronomy restaurant Alinea. While such award-winning establishments have changed the culinary scene, it is the extreme flux of fast-casual eateries, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Freshii, that has saturated neighborhoods to the point of bursting.
Just as Chicago has been a testing ground for some of the world’s most unusual cooking techniques, it would seem the city is now becoming the site of an uncanny fast food resurgence. As McDonald’s moves its headquarters from its Dirk Lohan–designed modernist campus in Chicago’s Oak Brook suburb to downtown, other chains are also rethinking their spaces to appeal to the urban set. McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell all have redesigned or launched new restaurants specifically for urban settings. In particular, Taco Bell has launched a new line of storefronts that are hardly recognizable as the affordable “Mexican” chain.
With the first of its kind opening in Wicker Park, Chicago, the Taco Bell Cantina takes a step toward the fast-casual market and away from its drive-through and suburban-mall food court roots. Most noticeably, the Cantina doesn’t have a drive-through, or even a parking lot. Situated in a small storefront—which once housed a short-lived high-end sex toy shop—the fast food giant takes advantage of the heavily pedestrian-trafficked Milwaukee Avenue retail district. Once pocked with numerous vacant storefronts, the street is now filling with local and national chains looking to cash in on the popularity of the walkable neighborhood.
As such, this Taco Bell is specifically designed for pedestrians. This carries into the interior with nonslip tile floors that guard against the slush and snow of Chicago winters. The dining area is somewhere between a fast-casual restaurant, an internet cafe, and a sports bar. Yes, a sports bar. When the Cantina opened, most stories revolved around the fact that this is the first Taco Bell to serve alcohol. Hard liquor can be mixed with Taco Bell’s proprietary Mountain Dew flavors, and beer is served in bottles. Large flat-screen TVs along one wall play sports, news, and, late at night (it is open 24 hours), the Syfy channel. During the day, it is not uncommon to see people sitting at the highly finished plywood furniture working on laptops. Airport terminals should take note of the number of outlets at this Taco Bell. With at least one for every seat, it is ironically more convenient to work there than at the trendy coffee shop down the street. All of this is part of a carefully planned shift by Yum! Brands, Inc., Taco Bell’s parent company. Since the opening of the Wicker Park Cantina in late 2015, 11 other “urban inline stores” have opened around the country. Along with the Cantina, Taco Bell has opened four other models in California, ostensibly referencing their specific locations. Those models have names like Heritage, Modern Explorer, California Sol, and Urban Edge. Of the 2,500 more Taco Bell locations Yum! plans to open around the world in the next five years, at least 300 of them are planned to be the urban iterations.
Another major brand that believes Chicago may be a perfect pilot site is the coffee giant Starbucks. After a major remodel of the tiny Wicker Park Starbucks, the space was rebranded as a higher-end offering that the Seattle-based company is calling Starbucks Reserve. Reserve locations serve small batch specialty coffees, and the design of the space has been rethought. Following a larger trend in retail, companies are looking to provide more differentiated environments, rather than the repetitious brand enforcing model companies like Starbucks are known for. Finer finishes, graphic and object references to the coffee harvesting process, and LEED compliant construction methods all add to this new “experience.” Doubling down in the windy city, Starbucks will also open its largest retail space to date downtown along Michigan Avenue. The third of its kind, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery will be a four-story, 43,000-square-foot coffee palace. Along with roasting the brand’s special Reserve coffees, the new space will include cafes and rooftop terraces.
While fast-casual chains continue to grow, that growth has begun to show signs of slowing in the past few years. The casual dining market on the other hand, typified by restaurants such as Applebee’s and TGI Fridays, has not only slowed to a stop—it has begun to lose ground. Analysts are now saying millennials, in particular, are just not interested in the chains that were so popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. With large numbers of twenty- and thirty-somethings moving to urban centers and preferring fast, generally healthier food, the restaurant industry is rushing to figure out how to keep up.
While Michelin-starred restaurants concoct fantastic dishes in spaces often difficult to find, let alone get reservations to, and fast casual brands continue to pump out quinoa wraps, a handful of large brands are trying to figure out what it means to have an urban presence. Rather than importing suburban drive-throughs, they’re mimicking urban coffee joints and neighborhood bars. Chicago, with its seemingly insatiable appetite for new and interesting restaurants, also seems to have room for some familiar faces that are willing to cater to its particular taste.