Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lauren Silich: taking Chick-fil-A to a new frontier

What type of person does it take to run one of the most successful new restaurants in Chicago? Well, considering the restaurant is a southern fixture, a lifelong Midwesterner wouldn’t be the first thought would it?

Well that would be the case, and Chick-fil-A Franchised Restaurant Operator Lauren Silich has taken quite the path to get to where she is now, serving happiness and high quality food on the corner of Chicago and Wabash.

“I’m proud to be the person who go to take them there [first location in the city of Chicago],” the 33-year-old Silich said.

The success of this “flagship” location, as Chick-fil-A likes to call it (due to the high profile, high visibility, and high traffic) has come quickly. The restaurant is already in the top five of the entire chain and broke first day and hourly sales records on the grand opening day.

Founded in Atlanta, Chick-fil-A has an almost cult-like following in the south and seems to gain one wherever else they decide to open one up. This location in downtown Chicago is also special according to Silich because there are items and ideas at this location that aren’t available anywhere else.

“This restaurant, for lack of a better term, is a concept store for Chick-fil-A,” Silich commented. “There area a lot of things here that are in test, from the food to the tables, chairs, marble, stools, patios, light fixtures, and LED lighting.”

But it is almost impossible to know how the restaurant has been so successful without seeing how Silich got to be the head honcho for this location.

The fourth-generation Chicagoan, now married to a Chicago Poilice sergeant with one daughter, is from the West Lawn neighborhood on the Southwest side of the city, and when she was young she moved out to the suburbs of Palos Hills and attended Stagg High School.

Sillich attended Marquette University and got her bachelor’s degree in journalism and moved to Monroe, Wis. where she was the lead reporter for The Monroe Times for two years.

Being the beat and sports reporter, which she admits she “Wasn’t as good at as she hoped she’d be,” led her back to her hometown Chicago with the hopes of getting hired by the Tribune or Sun-Times. When she found out they were in a hiring freeze, you could essentially call the start of her career metamorphosis.

She took a job at Imagination, a custom content and custom publishing agency. Silich described the job, at first, as a hybrid of journalism and marketing. She enjoyed it and “loved the culture of the company” which led her to stay there for nine years. Among her clients at Imagination were Wells Fargo, General Mills, and Chick-fil-A.

The latter of the three companies thought she was really good at what she did. Her job at the company was to give good advice and information about the companies about how to market themselves and get better known. That is when she decided to take a shot at interviewing for an operator position.

After an extensive interview process with Chick-fil-A, about two and a half years, she was picked to run the historic first store in the Windy City and the fifth in the Chicagoland area. It is not an honor she takes lightly.

“About 25-30,000 people apply to run a restaurant every year,” Silich said. “The pick 50. It’s very competitive.”

She is enjoying all that comes with running a new restaurant in a major city like Chicago, but she admits that there are challenges facing her and the brand in general.

“A vast majority have no idea what we are,” Silich admitted, saying that 75 percent of her staff had never even had Chick-fil-A before being hired. “The biggest challenge was, and will be for a long time, building brand awareness. Who we are, what do we sell, what are we known for.”

Another challenge for Silich has been marketing, which because it is a new store in an area with not many Chick-fil-A locations, does not have the market accrual that a region like Houston does. Instead, they have had to focus on extremely local marketing and word of mouth, social media (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare) and charity donations.

“A big part of our marketing is just getting our food out there, especially in a new market,” Silich said. “Me just marketing this store has been about as well as you can do.”

In the end, she took the job and has been able to succeed because of two simple things are that are now intertwined.

“I’m a friend of the brand [Chick-fil-A] because I’ve worked with them for so long, and I understand Chicago because I was born here.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Interview with Professional Cyclist Cole House

Things are different for Cole House the professional cycler now in almost every conceivable way.

The transition from Europe back to America for cycling has not been the easiest, but it would be tough to tell just by looking at his race results. The native of Oneida, Wis., a small town just outside of Green Bay, has made his presence felt by winning a couple of races. The most notable of them so far has been the Redlands Bicycle Classic, the official start to the 2011 USA Cycling National Racing Calendar.

“It was down to four guys in the lead group,” House said about the end of the Redlands. “Sometimes you get another opportunity and you have to take it.”

A slight break in NRC action after the Sunny King Criterium led House to the Sea Otter Classic, where he also claimed victory in the first stage of the race.

The success has come at a price, one that House is no doubt willing to pay. As reported by Daniel Benson at Cyclingnews, House rode for the BMC development team in 2009 and 2010. He rode in the US but also spent a good amount of time in Europe. The differences have been noticeable, and that’s just talking about off the bicycle.

“In Europe, everything is so close,” he commented. “Belgium is two hours from everything. Here it’s pretty difficult, especially with all the travel. Travel days are just as hard as the race days on your body. I’m still trying to figure it out, it’s pretty tough.”

With his travel schedule looking something like a rock star’s itinerary, it’s hard not to believe him. From the start of the NRC to the Sea Otter Classic, House has gone from California to Arizona (where the team’s facilities are located) to Georgia, then traveling on the road to Alabama for the Sunny King and back to California for his most recent race.

Team size, in addition to traveling, has also been a big difference in the team transition. House has admitted to liking the smaller team at, saying it “is more like a family.” The 13 member team is just under half of the 27 he was apart of with BMC.

“On my last team, you would show up to a race with a guy you haven’t seen in three months,” he acknowledged.

House also admitted that the courses in the US differ than the European ones in that they are “shorter, faster, more punchier here,”.

When he first came back to the states, House admitted to being a bit disappointed at not being offered a pro contract. The disappointment seems to be gone now, especially with a few wins under his belt.

Although his hometown is so close to “Titletown, USA”, House admits to not being a Packers fan and actually goes against the grain to stir up the pot with his family and friends. Hopefully he can bring some trophies of his own back to the Cheese State.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Where Do I Watch My Team At?

For those fans of college and pro football whose teams are not named the Chicago Bears and conference is not named the Big Ten, finding the game on television can be a pain. Where should you go?

Fortunately for the football-displaced in the Windy City, there are options available, but you have to search.

"Bars throughout the city of Chicago choose a tie with a college and pro team," one anonymous bartender at the Houndstooth Saloon in Wrigleyville. "There's no real tie to them (University of Alabama) but we wanted to do an SEC team."

The Crimson Tide bar has been in its current location for about a year but has been open in Chicag for five years. It is adorned with the Crimson Tide championship banner from 2010 and immediately noticeable with the crimson and white sign. The name of the bar is so unique because it is actually named after the famous houndstooth hat that legendary Bama Head Coach Bear Bryant would wear on the sidelines during games.

There are plenty other bars around Chicago just in case Alabama happens to not be the team you root for. O'Malleys West in Lincoln Park is a Michigan State bar and McGee's, also in LP and just steps from the DePaul University campus, is an Ohio State bar. McDunna's (1505 W. Fullerton) is a Nebraska Cornhuskers bar that is always packed on gamedays.

Although these bars are the places to be during the season, what happens when football is not on the big screen? Some places struggle for business in the offseason between January and late August.

The Houndstooth Saloon bartender did mention the advantage of the bar being located in Wrigleyville, saying "all during baseball season (with the Cubs), that's a big draw."

The site is also a very useful tool in finding where to watch certain teams play at. The website promises to "help groups of people with shared interests plan meetings and form offline clubs in local communities around the world."

Although football season is still seven months away, it is not too early to stake out bars for next year so you can root on your favorite team. No more worries about not being able to find them on TV at home.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chicago: A Sneakerhead's Paradise?

What is a sneakerhead to do in Chicago?

Better question: what is a sneakerhead?

The answer is actually quite simple. A sneakerhead is someone who loves sneakers and needs to have the latest and greatest in “kicks”. They are sometimes known to spend their rent money on a nice new pair of Nikes.

The obsession runs deep.

But where do sneakerheads go to get their fix in the city of Chicago? And where would the aspiring go if they are not familiar with the area? The Windy City does not have the same reputation for sneakers that New York or Los Angeles does.

Fear not though, there are plenty local shops in the area out to prove that the Foot Lockers and Finish Lines of the world cannot satisfy your true need for great footwear.

“People want something they can’t get elsewhere,” David Rasool Robinson, the manager and photographer of Saint Alfred, commented. “They don’t want a bunch of other people with that [the same sneakers as them].”

The Wicker Park (1531 N. Milwaukee Ave.) sneaker store has been open since 2005 and is their only location. What the store lacks in physical size, it makes up for in sneakers that are exclusive and shirts that are off the wall. A review of Saint Alfred on the website Yelp describes it as “Probably the best sneaker store in Chicago… maybe not for the average consumer but for the pure ‘sneakerhead’.”

Another store that gets a lot of buzz in the city is Akin Chicago. There are two locations, in University Village (1313 S. Halsted St.) and Lincoln Park (2350 N. Clark St.) just minutes from the DePaul University campus.

“New York’s got their game on, west coast has their game on, but Chicago is keeping up with them, it’s growing rapidly,” John Nguyen said. “I don’t know how it is out in New York or L.A. or any other city versus Chicago. But everyone here is kind of like a family you know.”

Nguyen, the owner of the Akin Chicago Lincoln Park location, is doing his best to reach out to the community near the school. The store offers 20 percent off to DePaul University students and he said that the DePaul basketball team frequents the store.

What both Robinson and Nguyen agree on are the advantages to going to smaller and more local stores as compared to going to the bigger chains that are nationwide.
“People, especially sneakerheads, they don’t like going to corporate stores,” Nguyen admitted. “They like to support the local business, the ‘mom and pop’ stores, [it’s] more personable.”

Robinson and Nguyen also let it be known that they stick to the local theme not just by what they sell, but also by using local designers in creating apparel.

“[In-house designers] makes it that much more of a representative of the city,” Robinson said. “Chicago is rich with talent.”

There are many more local sneaker stores in the city, and one wonders if there is ever rivalry or slander to steal customers away from those other stores? Not according to the store employees.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s a competition,” Robinson conceded, saying that it would do not only the stores, but also the city a disservice. “If there is any competition,it's to make the city better.”

So if there is a sneaker that you want but cant find, go to one of these stores. Can’t find them there? They will be more than happy to point you in the direction of another great store for “sneakerheads”.