LINCOLN PARK — Ever wanted to invite friends over for a drink, but didn't want the hassle of having to clean up before or after? The sharing economy has provided a solution.
Birch Road Cellar is a members-only, bring-your-own-bottle spot where people can simply hang out with friends and fellow members. The club has been operating in Lincoln Park for three years and recently opened a new — and secret — location in Roscoe Village.
"Our belief is people are just looking for a space to to talk over a drink," said co-owner Kim Bosse, who readily grants that it's a new take on the sharing economy that has already produced Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.
The concept is simple. Think of Birch Road Cellar as sort of a spacious, accommodating apartment, unpublicized from the outside, in a building along the border between Lincoln Park and the RANCH Triangle. Members get the entry code to the security door outside and another one inside, activated by fingerprint, as well as a temperature-controlled cellar where they can keep their own bottles in a locker.
Otherwise, they gain full access to a well-appointed place with a "studio," including a few separate areas with couches and chairs to sit down, a "tasting room" that acts as an expanded kitchen and a "dining room" that can be closed off and also reserved.
Bosse calls it "a neighborhood club" that's "built on conversation."
She opened the hangout three years ago with partner Sharon Provins. They were childhood friends who grew up on Birch Road — thus the name — in Northbrook.
Bosse had a background in the hospitality industry, but found herself increasingly weary of the business required when what she really liked was hanging out with customers.
"We really built this for ourselves," Bosse said. They wanted a place where they could "open a bottle of wine and talk all night," where they didn't feel they were taking up space beyond a reasonable amount of time in a a restaurant, or spending money buying drinks all night in a bar, where the surroundings could likewise be crowded and noisy.
Bosse said, "We weren't the only ones thinking, 'There's not a good place to go out — if you don't want the crowds, don't want the kids.'"
What makes Birch Road Cellar work, she added, is that it's self-policing, with members simply expected to interact in a reasonable manner. Although there's anything anyone could want in the way of glasses, bottle openers, mixers and the like in the tasting room, there's no wait staff. Members hang out with friends or other members, clean up after themselves and share programming the music, played at a moderate level.
"There will never be a TV in Birch Road Cellar," Bosse said.
The vibe is decidedly mellow, and it attracts like-minded members.
"If you are looking for this kind of space, you belong here," Bosse said. "Everybody here wants it to work."
Bosse said that they have never had a member complain about another, and never had a case where someone got overserved and acted accordingly.
"There are just great people in Chicago," she added, "and you bring them together and they get it."
While members can sit with friends, they can also mingle with others. Bosse likes to tell the story of a corporate chief executive officer who had "collected" a couple of real fire engines — no joke — who found himself chatting with a firefighter. He was ecstatic, as was the firefighter.
Members have also formed their own groups with regular meetings, such as the Cork Dorks. "That's all member-driven," Bosse said.
She interviews prospective members herself from those who show an interest online.
"If they're looking for a scene and they come here, they realize right away this is not what they're looking for," she said.
Available hours are 9 a.m.-2 a.m. "We're not an after-hours place, for sure," Bosse said. The downtime also gives housekeepers a chance to spruce the place up and wash the dishes and silver.
According to Bosse, when they first got the idea for Birch Road Cellar, they looked on the internet for similar concepts and found nothing. The closest relatives were similar places, but almost inevitably used as marketing devices for some other venture — say, a smoke room for cigar aficionados or a tasting room for wine fanciers.
Instead, Bosse compared it to the traditional British club, but with a more informal approach and a less-stuffy atmosphere.
Monthly "dues" are $89, $119 for a couple, and there's no annual contract, as Bosse has said they're not out to tie people down to commitments. If a person loses interest in coming by, the membership can be terminated at any time.
While Bosse declined to reveal figures for the membership, the cellar has dozens of lockers. They limit membership to suit the space. "Members can always come in and find a seat," Bosse said.
They also recently opened a second location, in Roscoe Village, with some members moving over and others opting for joint membership. Opened late last year, it has the same basic rules, layout and concept, only with a separate hidden location in the Roscoe Village area.
"We have big visions that there should be a Birch Road Cellar in every neighborhood," Bosse said.