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Urbanbelly to Replace Wicker Staple Penny's Noodles, Chef Says

By Alisa Hauser | December 14, 2015 12:01pm | Updated on December 14, 2015 2:47pm
 Penny's on a rainy night in Wicker Park.
Penny's on a rainy night in Wicker Park.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

WICKER PARK —  Neighborhood staple Penny's Noodles, scheduled to close Jan. 2, won't be empty long: the group behind Chef Bill Kim's Belly Shack will be taking over the Damen Avenue storefront and opening a second Urbanbelly spot early next year, it was announced on Monday.

Partner/Chef Bill Kim of Urbanbelly, Belly Shack and bellyQ, which serves Korean fusion food, confirmed the entry to 1542 N. Damen Ave.

“Wicker Park is a vibrant community that we have long wanted to explore and it is an honor to bring our signature noodle, rice and dumpling concept to the neighborhood. The restaurant currently located at the address – Penny’s Noodle Shop – has been a mainstay in Chicago, and we very much respect the loyalty the owners have built with the community, guests and employees. More details will be released early next year," Kim said.

The news of the next step for the Penny's location, which has served affordable Thai food next to the CTA Damen Blue Line "L" stop for years, was announced to about a dozen workers at Penny's Noodles on Saturday.

Penny's Noodles owner Gus Chiamopoulos and his wife, Penny, did not return calls on Sunday or early Monday. But in a post on Penny's Noodles Facebook page, Chiamopoulos said "the new owners have offered to consider hiring as many of our current employees as possible."

On Sunday, Chiamopoulos blamed rising rents, which would have meant rising menu prices.

"We do so with a heavy heart....  We always prided ourselves on serving homemade food at a price that folks could enjoy as frequently as they wanted and not only on special occasions. We didn’t want to stray from that direction," Chiamopoulos posted.  

Chiamopoulos closed Penny's flagship location in Wrigleyville in 2013 because of building renovations.  The chain, which was started 24 years ago, will continue to operate Penny's Noodle shops in Lincoln Park and suburban Oak Park.

Raphael Martinez, a manager at Penny's Noodles, said he news was pretty much inevitable.

"It was going to have to happen eventually. Have you looked around? There are renovations everywhere in Wicker Park and rents are going up," Martinez said on Sunday.

Martinez, a painter who plans to go back to graduate school after the restaurant closes, said he will miss the family-like environment at Penny's.

"The way [Gus and Penny] run the restaurant makes it very familiar, like family.  They are committed to everyone who works here," Martinez said.

Michael Haney, president and CEO of Newcastle Limited, owns the building that houses Penny's Noodles and neighboring Blue Line Lounge & Grill at 1548 N. Damen, which was formerly the Busy Bee, a Polish diner that closed in 1999.

Haney bought the 100-year-old building, which also include loft-style offices above both businesses, for $9.8 million in July 2012, county records show.

On the Newcastle Limited website, the Penny's Noodles building is promoted as being on a high-visibility corner where the average household income within a half-mile of the storefront is $133,000.

Samuel Hergott, a retail portfolio manager for Newcastle Limited, which owns several other prominent buildings in Wicker Park and Bucktown, declined to comment.