RIVER NORTH — The opening of Cafe 312 at Google's headquarters in the city is significant for the hundreds of "Googlers" who now have a swanky new Chicago-themed eatery, but it's equally important to people such as Carrie Cooper, owner of Starlounge Coffee Bar in West Town.
That's because the tech giant decided to fill the 220-seat dining hall on the ninth floor of 20 W. Kinzie St. entirely with locally-sourced, sustainable and independently-owned foodstuffs. Business owners whose wares were chosen by the company say Cafe 312 is a blessing for Chicagoans far removed from the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine company.
Cooper's coffee bar can seat only about 30 customers. But thanks to Cafe 312's opening, she has instantly added nearly 500 caffeine-reliant Chicagoans to her customer base as the Dark Matter coffee they produce and serve is now the java of choice there.
"This has the potential to make a broader audience aware of our existence," Cooper said after the doors were officially opened Monday and dozens of Google employees had poured into the dining hall. "A huge corporation like Google recognizing someone local is great."
Cafe 312 was a five-year project led by Nicole Montanye of the family-owned, Goose Island-based Calihan Catering. Calihan was chosen to develop the concept and run operations in an "epic" cook-off Google arranged among several local catering companies.
Calihan stood out by making "everything — sandwiches, tenderloin, full-on trays, desserts, hors d'oeuvres. We pulled out all the stops," regional director of corporate catering Cate Kaczala said.
Since then, Calihan has been equally discriminating amassing a collective of local food artisans and suppliers, including directly sourcing vegetables, cheeses and other ingredients from small family farms across the Midwest.
The space itself is Chicago-themed, with different eating areas designed around neighborhoods including Uptown and Logan Square, decorated with nods to landmarks such as the iconic Green Mill jazz lounge.
Even the talent is locally-sourced. Montanye, who teaches at Kendall College, staffed Google's cafe with recent graduates from the accelerated cooking program, including Dantee Arias, 26, and Kristin Sester, 29, who hopped on board after stints at boutique restaurants such as Chizakaya.
Both lost sleep this week counting down to the cafe's opening, but because of excitement, not nerves.
"We're so fortunate to have Googlers that are foodies," Arias said. "They ask tons of questions. They're very food conscious," which he said makes features such as the "action station," where guests interact directly with chefs, especially exciting.
The cafe's impact will also resonate outside of the Google Chicago offices, and beyond the businesses involved in stocking it.
"Over the last 10 years, Google Chicago has blossomed from two or three employees to over 500," Ald. Brendan Reilly (2nd) said before cutting a yellow "Google" ribbon stretched over the cafe's entrance. "Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel and I want to find out what we can do to double that. Thank you all for making River North your home."