WICKER PARK — If all goes according to plan, customers served over the weekend at Pork & Mindy's grand opening will look back and say they were in on the ground floor of the next Shake Shack, Five Guys or even Jimmy John's.
Built around a core menu of sandwiches featuring slow-smoked meats, the restaurant, at 1623 N. Milwaukee Ave., is the first from founders Kevin Corsello, who serves as CEO, and executive chef Jeff "Sandwich King" Mauro, of Food Network fame.
Kevin Corsello and Jeff Mauro are betting big on Pork & Mindy's. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
The two have made no secret of their goal to parlay their fast-casual concept into a network of franchises.
"We put a lot of work into infrastructure. We always knew we wanted to build the company to scale," said Corsello, a Harvard Business School grad.
Getting big, feeling small
Thursday night's VIP preview of Pork & Mindy's felt like the VIP preview of any other new neighborhood joint, not like the second coming of Wendy's.
How to maintain that sense of excitement and community, whether in Wicker Park, Seattle or Katmandu is the topic of conversation among Pork & Mindy's management team, Corsello said.
It starts with the food, which Mauro spent a year testing.
"I don't pretend to know how to roll sushi but I've made more sandwiches than most people on the planet," he said. "You'll get seven unique sandwiches."
The Pork & Mindy's menu is built around a core of sandwiches featuring smoked meats. [Pork & Mindy's]
Menu items include the Pig Candy BLT, featuring smoked bacon dusted with brown sugar (pig candy), and a version of chicken and waffles that isn't a heart attack on a plate — the bird is brined, mulberry-smoked and hand-pulled, not fried.
Yet nothing is so complicated that it can't be reliably replicated, a necessity when it comes to franchising.
Ensuring consistency and quality, not only in Wicker Park but ultimately across hundreds or potentially thousands of locations, will fall to Dave Berni, Mauro's cousin and director of operations for Pork & Mindy's.
He's up for the challenge.
"It's almost like that moment when you're going on vacation and you're on a plane and getting ready to land ... that's the feeling, it's that kind of anticipation," he said of Pork & Mindy's launch.
Pork & Mindy's aims to create a family vibe among staff. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Key to success on the operations side will be hiring the right people, Berni said.
"The one thing we talk about is how to build that family atmosphere from within," he said, with Trader Joe's and its cheery, collegial employees being an apt comparison.
"It should feel like walking into grandma's for Sunday dinner — everyone knows their place and helps out," Berni said. "You know when you have the right people. You get that instant vibe, 'This person fits with us.'"
Food, art and music
At the same time, individuality is an important component of the Pork & Mindy's model, with art and music playing prominent roles.
Each restaurant will function as an art gallery of sorts, said Adam Kaplan, Pork & Mindy's art director.
One wall will be devoted to a permanent, commissioned piece of art — in Wicker Park it will be a still-to-come mosaic by pothole-filler extraordinaire Jim Bachor — and another will be given over to a rotating display of work by local artists.
Prints will be available for sale in-store as well as online, even after they're no longer on exhibit, providing a potential steady stream of income for artists.
One wall in every Pork & Mindy's will be devoted to a rotating display of art. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
"We're creating a platform for the artistic community to grow," Kaplan said.
Though Pork & Mindy's isn't necessarily set up for live music, local DJs and musicians are being asked to submit playlists, which will loop over the restaurant's sound system. Bands are also being recruited to record "back of the house" concert sessions — sometimes in the Pork & Mindy's kitchen — which people can listen to or watch in-store and online.
Jude Shuma recorded one of the first Pork & Mindy's back-of-the-house sessions. [Facebook/Pork & Mindy's]
Though this all sounds quite ambitious, Mauro said it's a "cakewalk" compared with the 10-plus years he spent cobbling together gigs as a cook, comedian and musician before hitting it big in 2011 as the winner of the seventh season of "Food Network Star."
"I hustled to get this job as a food personality for 14 years before it happened ... and I've been juggling an insane schedule for the last five years," said Mauro. "This is so much easier. We're not open til two in the morning. I can go home at night and tuck my kid in and take him to school in the morning."
After receiving, and rejecting, any number of pitches from people looking to capitalize on his television fame, Mauro bit on Corsello's idea for Pork & Mindy's, because he knew Corsello had the chops to handle the business side of things.
"He sent me this email and it was like a 42-page document" full of charts and analytics, Mauro recalled.
"I knew I could stay in my lane and create food and not worry about door knobs or amortization. I don't even know what amortization means," he said.
Credited by his partner as the brains of the operation, Corsello directs the company's vision "from 50,000 feet," lines up things like supply chains and not so coincidentally found the storefront for the second Pork & Mindy's, coming this spring.
Stealing their own buzz
Pork & Mindy's in Wicker Park, one of Chicago's most buzzed about restaurant openings of 2016, had yet to make its debut when Corsello and Mauro announced they would be expanding to 4359 W. Irving Park Road in the spring.
And suddenly all anybody wanted to talk about was Irving Park.
"We wrapped the windows [in Irving Park] two weeks ago and it blew up," said Mauro. "That neighborhood is a sponge ... they need something there."
The Irving Park storefront became available when the previous tenant — Corsello, as it turns out — decided to consolidate his pair of Get A Grip Cycles shops into a single West Loop location.
"I wanted to scale back to build this business with Jeff," he explained. "I talked to the landlord and he loved the idea. He came here a couple of nights ago and asked, 'Can we do it faster?'"
The menu board at Pork & Mindy's. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Ice cream treats are also on the menu. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
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