If good conversation is food for the brain, speaking with Matthias Merges is a veritable feast. Award-winning Chef Merges, who was the Executive Chef for 14 years at the famed Charlie Trotter’s, has gone on to create his own restaurant dynasty which includes Billy Sunday, the Michelin-starred A10, Old Irving Brewing Co, Lucky Dorr, Gideon Sweet, and a host of newer concepts rolling out in 2018. Hyde Park Group got a chance to pick his brain on the state of the restaurant industry and the key trends driving new food and beverage experiences.
Q. Starting broadly, what do you see in today’s restaurant climate?
Today, it’s not just about serving spectacular food, now it’s so much beyond that. It’s about great service, how you activate the space, how a meal becomes interactive, how you interface with a client and give them rich, rewarding experience. That’s something that we’re really pushing; how you not only give clients stellar service, but also tell a story.
Clients are coming in with expectations – people today are so much more savvy than they used to be. They require more and have higher standards and are hungry for knowledge. It’s up to restaurateurs to make sure that everyone in the restaurant, from the waitstaff to the person answering the phone to the person unloading the dishwasher, has a deeper understanding of what’s going on and how to articulate that to a client on every level.
Q. How do you ‘activate’ a space for experiential dining?
At Gideon Sweet, during the dinner we use lighting to create one mood, then later on in the evening we have this old, 1940s cocktail sign that we switch on – it turns the space a different color and service becomes more casual. It really become more of an experience. Especially on Randolph Street, we notice that people aren’t going to one place for an evening. They’re hopping around. We’re trying to understand how the clientele in particular neighborhoods are moving around and how to meet their needs.
Dining out has become more of a theatrical experience. Look at Alinea [by Chef Grant Achatz], at how much they’ve activated what they do. When Alinea first opened, the plates were brought on this very stark table, and now it’s they have things coming from the ceiling and lights and smoke… I think many restaurants are going down this road. There will always be restaurants that have classic fare and service, but I think for the most part it’s important to consider whether the environment is visually connecting and important to the client when they walk in, and how the story and space evolve throughout their visit.
Q. You recently opened Lucky Dorr at Wrigley Field. What’s the concept there?
We’re doing all one-off tap beers from local breweries within city. We do collaborative beers that can only be found at Lucky Dorr. We have 900 square feet with a big patio, right outside the stadium. We looked at all the bars and options around the field, and we came in with something that wasn’t offered anywhere closeby. There’s a larger segment of the population that’s growing who are looking for this type of experience.
Q. Are we seeing a big shift away from bottled craft to hyperlocal tap?
I think there is a market for the one-off bottles as a collector type thing, but I think for beer geeks, tap beer means fresh, just made. We have people that come in not just for games, but to try beers from the microbreweries in each of Chicago’s ward that they can get at Lucky Dorr. Beer is super hot right now. Beer in Chicago is what it was on the West Coast 20 years ago. It’s moving from west to east.
Q. The cocktail on tap was one of your really big, housemade innovations. How’s that going?
It’s going great. One thing we realized is cocktails that require effervescence only get better over time, as the flavors meld together. We wanted to ensure that when our bar is super busy, all the craft cocktail experience is preserved for the bartenders when they’re mixing. Keg cocktails give them the time to focus on that, and to be able to pull the drafts while maintaining an eight minute ticket turn. We utilized technology to maintain the showmanship and creativity. With Billy Sunday, we can have 400-500 people in the space and still have an 8-10 minutes ticket turn, even when it’s three deep at the bar.
Q. What’s your best-selling draft cocktail?
The Gin & Tonic. The gin and the tonic flavors become more melded, and we make all of our tonics and syrups in-house with our own recipes. We found a tonic recipe from the 1880s and modified it a little bit. Our G&T is darker, almost a reddish brown, because we use cinchona bark in our tonic. In modern times, quinine, the ingredient in today’s standard tonic, took the place of cinchona, because the bark was so hard to get from Brazil. So if you’re drinking a clear ‘gin and tonic’ today, it’s not a true version – it’s a quinine tonic. Ours is deeper, richer, less sweet. The color also enables us to tell the story of the drink’s history.
Thanks, Chef Merges, for your great insights into experiential dining and the state of beer and cocktails. We look forward to visiting your new establishments in Chicago.
Hyde Park Group Food Innovation is a strategic culinary company connecting consumer insight to new food and beverage development. Uniting strategy with five-star culinary and packaging design, we identify new opportunities and bring them to life through rapid proto-cepting development and consumer research. For further information about our services, or to hear our 2018: What’s Tipping? Food Trends presentation, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hydeparkgroup.com
Photos courtesy of Matthias Merges.