CHICAGO — Like a lot of things in Chicago, the local restaurant scene is a matter of fierce civic pride. Just ask Ryan LaRoche.
“Chicagoans support their restaurants,” says LaRoche, executive chef at NoMI, just off the city’s “Magnificent Mile” shopping district.
“It’s a very food-driven city. People love to eat out,” he said.
People love to eat out everywhere, of course, but in Chicago, it appears they’re lately doing so in greater numbers.
Chefs such as LaRoche, as well as local produce merchants, say hotel and restaurant business in the region improved in 2011 and they look for further strength next year.
At Testa Produce Inc., one of the Chicago area’s top foodservice suppliers, sales are up nearly 10% over last year, according to company president Peter Testa.
The hotel and restaurant industry is typically among the first to recover from a recession, he said.
“We definitely see an uptick in the restaurant chains,” Testa said in November. “The restaurant chains are doing better, the hotels are doing better. I think we can do a lot more next year. Our target for 2012 is double-digit growth in sales.”
With its diverse restaurant scene and large convention and tourism industries, Chicago is an important foodservice market for the fresh produce industry.
There are more than 16,000 restaurants in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, accounting for about two-thirds of the statewide total, according to the Illinois Restaurant Association.
Illinois restaurants are expected to generate $19.9 billion in revenue in 2011, up nearly 6% from 2010, the association said.
Long known for its white-tablecloth steakhouses, classic Italian establishments and deep-dish pizza joints, Chicago in recent years has also seen a rise in younger chefs, such as LaRoche, who place increasing emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly locally grown products.
At Girl & the Goat, a popular restaurant west of downtown that opened in 2010, executive chef Stephanie Izard offers a three-part menu that includes nine vegetable combinations, one with sautéed green beans, fish sauce and vinaigrette and another with cashews, roasted beets, green beans, white anchovy and avocado crème fraiche.
While business may be growing at Chicago’s high-end eateries, the rest of the country was a mixed picture this year as many restaurants struggled to recover from the 2008-09 recession.
In September, the industry showed expansion for the first time in three months as store traffic improved and businesses hired more workers, the National Restaurant Association reported.
While restaurant operators were more optimistic about sales growth in coming months, their outlook for the overall economy remained cloudy, Hudson Riehle, the association’s head of research, said in an October statement.
At NoMI, located in the Park Hyatt hotel, where room rates start at about $395 a night, LaRoche said his restaurant’s menu has taken on more of a local flavor recently.
He tries to use as much locally grown food as possible, he said, much of it purchased at Green City Market, a nearby farmers market open May through October.
Recently added items on NoMI’s menu include an $18 Burrata salad featuring Bordeaux spinach, shaved heirloom apple and honey-pinenut vinaigrette, LaRoche said.
Another popular salad, he said, is the roasted pear and Jamon Iberico, at $17.
Thinking creatively and progressively with food is crucial in the city’s restaurant business, LaRoche said.
“There’s a lot of competition in Chicago,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of talented chefs here.”