It’s our 15th anniversary! Big Jones opened on April 8, 2008. Here are some pictures and part of our story from the first 15 years of our adventure!
None of this would have been possible without your friendship and support through good times and bad, we hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as we have!
– Paul and Mark
Before Big Jones (2007)
Paul and Mark moved to Chicago in 1995 and lived in Andersonville on the 5500 block of Glenwood. At that time, the restaurant at 5347 N Clark was Augie’s. Augie’s was a treasured part of the neighborhood that had been open since the 1950s. In 2007, Augie retired and Augie’s closed. Augie’s was a time capsule dated to 1955, and full of its own charm.
September 20, 2007: Rochambeau, LLC signs a ten-year lease for the former Augie’s space at 5347 North Clark Street from the property’s new owner, Raymark Venture. Raymark Venture would later sell to an investor group and within a couple of years, the property would be owned by the large REIT Newcastle Limited.
The base rent was $7500 per month and the opening budget was set at $450,000, $350,000 of which was financed through the Small Business Administration.
Big Jones Construction (2007-2008)
Full of optimism, we were charged with many decisions, including whether to refurbish the iconic Augie’s sign for our own image, or to take it down and allow the beautiful tile working on the facade of the 1910 building to come forward.
We ultimately decided to have a more discreet street presence and removed the sign in favor of a striped awning and sandblasted wood sign above the windows. We wanted discovering the restaurant to be like finding a hidden gem.
The original storefront was a simple plate glass construction, with a tight opening budget we chose to keep it simple and go from there. It was also consistent with our objective of designing a space that had the basic elements of modern Chicago design – sweeping lines, open space, bringing the outdoors indoors – while appointing the details of the space with elements of Southern urban and country design as well. Joel Berman was the architect and design was envisioned by Paul.
For the most part we did a gut rehab, starting from scratch, but having to keep a few elements like the location of the kitchen.
As we went through demolition, we found some very old wallpaper under the walls, which we think were from the restaurants at that location before Augie’s.
A new liquor license was necessary in order to be able to serve Bourbon and other libations; this process took four months, much less time than is typical in Chicago. But, we were working our butts off.
Big Jones Opens! (April 2008)
We opened officially on April 8, 2008.
The original dining room space relied a lot on crushed velvet curtains and gleaming white tabletops and bar. The design was clean and cheery but proved to be to “live” or noisy when the dining room was full.
White tabletops also instigated an image of fine dining, which wasn’t good for non-special occasion dining.
When we opened, the kitchen was mostly closed but with a passthrough from the kitchen to the bar. This changed many times over the years!
Artwork was by our friend Irvin. The walls were painted; some of that was replaced by wallpaper many years later.
You’ll see three things in the opening photos that you can still see at Big Jones today, fifteen years later: the onion lights, the host stand, and the chairs! The onion-shaped lights have been an iconic part of Big Jones from day one. The original host stand was bought down the street at Urbanest right before opened. And we still have the same chairs, although they’ve been re-upholstered.
Year One and the Great Recession (2008)
Soon after we opened, Lehmann Brothers fell and the Great Recession started. When the Great Recession hit, sales dropped by half! That required a nimble reaction and a lot of hard work.
By the end of 2008, our survival was uncertain, we even had a Friday night in which we had only five guests. By early 2009 business had stabilized albeit at a low level. We were at least sure we could break even until things improved. We focused hard on execution of high quality, locally-sourced food with compelling presentations.
Our first review in the Chicago Sun-Times appeared. Pat Bruno really didn’t like our gumbo, and we think he had it on a night where it hadn’t been made correctly. Trust us, the gumbo has gotten a lot better!
Plates were all white at first, and continued to be all white through at least 2013.
Getting Noticed (2009-2010)
In April 2009, Chicago Magazine named us one of their Best New Restaurants, and things picked up substantially.
Then, in October 2009, Bon Appetit listed us as the Best Fried Chicken north of the Mason-Dixon line, and suddenly we were doing 120 covers on Tuesday nights with a line down the block (fried chicken was only Tuesday nights at that time).
In January 2010, Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel awarded us three stars and suddenly we were a “name” restaurant in Chicago.
Back Patio (2011)
In 2011, we created the back patio. We had hopes to convert the entire back parking area off the alley into a huge back patio, but that didn’t fly with the landlord. We created a cozy welcoming outdoor spot that our guests still love.
We started with those same white tabletops out back, but those didn’t survive outside weather forever.
We put up some lanterns to evoke the French Quarter, but never ran gas to them to give them that authentic gas-lighting look.
Changing the Bar (2012)
With sales picking up but still way below the levels we experienced during our opening months before the Great Recession, we decided to work on the space to make it warmer, with a more casual feel and, to express a passion of ours, a much larger Bourbon list.
The new dining room space and bar featured hand-made-in-chicago cherry wood butcher block, a reflection of our in-house hog butchering program in which we only used whole hogs from local farms. (The original bar top was the white surface like the tabletops.)
We also introduced three high-top tables at this time, to give the bar area a more relaxed feel.
Our Bourbon list grew from only a handful of key names to over 100, with the requirement that they be made in the South or a distillery local to the Chicago area. The back bar became a place to highlight all the bourbons available to the members of our Big Jones Bourbon Society.
During this remodeling, we closed the pass-through from the kitchen to the bar, making the kitchen entirely closed off, for better or worse!
Check, Please! (2014)
In August of 2014, we learned we would be on Check, Please! By that point the diners had already visited, and we had a day of filming with the excellent crew. (Thanks, Carr!) Here’s the episode from November 2014.
In the dining room you can see the new wallpaper, the new bar, and that the kitchen is completely closed off from the dining room. The new vacation-photo art is up, and we still have the old storefront.
Big Jones Cookbook (2015)
Paul spent 2014 working on his first book, The Big Jones Cookbook. Andy Shay did artwork for the book, some of which is shared here. It was published in 2015 on University of Chicago Press. Here it is on Amazon.
A New Storefront (2017)
In 2017, with our original SBA loan matured and paid off and our lease up for renewal, we decided to invest further, signing a five-year extension and adding another 5-year option. We also went to back to the SBA for a fresh investment to “finish” the restaurant we started on a lean budget, adding fully modernized equipment, an open kitchen, updated HVAC, and a storefront designed by Thom Greene of Greene & Proppe Design. It felt more like home than ever.
Construction started in May 2017 with tearing out the original plate glass windows and simple door. We put in a new wooden windows and front door, accented with a beautiful tile. With windows that open we could finally bring in some fresh air on nice days!
(In 2010 and 2011 we had taken vacations to New Orleans, and some of those photos became the new artwork on the walls. In 2013 we went to Florida and South Carolina, and some of those photos are also on the walls.)
The Big Dining Room Change and more (2018)
We built a basement prep kitchen, which was a huge improvement for kitchen operations. In the old days, we did prep and served guests both from the main kitchen. So while we were serving Sunday brunch, the dinner crew was trying to get ready for dinner service in the same space!
The more visible change was opening up the kitchen entirely, and building a chef’s counter in front of the kitchen. Construction happened in March 2018.
By this point we had new art and new wallpaper. The curtains were gone from the front of the dining room, but still had them in the back. The white plates and white tabletops were all history.
With a coherent basement prep kitchen, back patio seating, front patio seating, and a wide-open kitchen, we finally had the restaurant space we’d wanted all along.
The Pandemic (2020)
On March 15, 2020 we heard the news that restaurant dining rooms in Chicago would close. On March 16, we started what we privately called Little Jones. Delivery and carry-out became the norm, and our dining room service was done, for who knows how long.
The Covid-19 pandemic was as difficult to navigate as one might imagine, but we were determined to stay open – never closing for even a day – to take care of our employees who either didn’t qualify for unemployment or who needed to work for their mental health, and also to be here for our community.
We took the opportunity to use the good will toward restaurants at the time to do two things we’d always wanted to do: Add employee benefits and reduce the impact of tipping on employee compensation. After a year of enduring mean, factually wrong, and often toxic Yelp and Google reviews regarding our service charge policy which allowed us to eliminate the tip credit and pay everyone living wages with benefits, we reneged and went back to a tipped model. We can, however, proudly say that we have retained and will continue to retain employee benefits, including health/dental/vision, accident and hospitalization, paid vacation, paid sick leave, and paid time off.
The pandemic reinforced in our minds what we’ve always believed: restaurant workers are highly skilled employees requiring sometimes years of training, and are deserving of the same benefits as people in other professions, including wages which are not only living wages but allow for some degree of comfort in life. We are committed to being that kind of employer.
For months, the dining room was only visited by customers picking up carry-out orders. The tables were arranged for carry-out and delivery management. During the summer of 2020 at least we were able to have outdoor seating out front and in the back.
The donut pop-up was fun, but waking up early to make donuts on winter mornings wasn’t!
This page hasn’t even had time to review other important parts of the Big Jones story like:
- Beat Bobby Flay (yes Paul won)
- Big Jones Bourbon Society
- Green City Market BBQ and other charity events
- Two Chicago mayors dining with us
- and the amazing people who have worked at Big Jones over the past 15 years.
What’s next for Big Jones? We don’t plan on going anywhere, although the competitive landscape in Andersonville has changed and the future is perhaps as uncertain as it’s ever been. Chains, both national and regional, and restaurant groups have taken notice in the neighborhood and now dominate the restaurant business here. There are very few one-store, independent businesses left. We will continue to ply our trade and focus on being the best we can be, and hopefully we can count on our community to truly shop local, supporting what is unique to Andersonville and provides value beyond cheap eats.
As always, we appreciate your patronage and thank you from the bottom of our hearts for getting us this far. Here’s to 15 more!
Paul and Mark