EDGEWATER — Chicago's new Autism Eats supper club, which gets restaurants to close their diners so families with children who have Autism can eat in peace, has seen a surge in popularity over the last three weeks.
Shannon Dunworth, who heads the Chicago chapter of the Boston-based group, said she's already scheduled two more events: an April 22 brunch at Fireside Inn, 5739 N. Ravenswood Ave., and a June 11 outdoor patio meal at Chief O'Neill's, 3471 N. Elston Ave., in Avondale.
Other big restaurant names, like Portillo's, have also offered to help the group.
Attention for the organization, who held its first dinner event March 18 at the Fireside, increased after a DNAinfo Chicago story was shared widely — including by actress Kate Winslet through her Golden Hat Foundation.
After it published on the morning of March 2, Dunworth said her phone began ringing off the hook.
"My phone started to ring at like 7:30 in the morning," she said.
By 8 a.m., the event was sold out.
"And then we increased it by 30 more people, and we sold out again two hours later," Dunworth said.
About 76 people came to the event originally slated for 50 guests. The Avondale event in June should be able to accommodate up to 120 people.
For the group's next event April 22, there is already a 150-person waitlist.
"Since that time, I swear to God, I've been working on it every day," Dunworth said.
Soon after came an unexpected wave of media attention, she said.
Dunworth said the group's founder is still going through emails from people who either heard about or participated in the inaugural Chicago dinner.
Since the story caught on, Dunworth said other organizations like Autism Speaks, the National Autism Association, Chicago Children's Theater and more have reached out to see how the two groups could partner.
"I didn't expect all that," she said. "It bypassed anything going on the last three years in the country with the other chapters, I was just amazed.
The group, which has offshoot branches across the country, is still in the grassroots stages and is considering registering as a non-profit in order to harness its potential, Dunworth said.
In the meantime, she and her husband, who parent 14-year-old Aidan, who has Autism, will continue to run the Chicago branch.
In the summer, the couple hopes to partner with a Chicago gym that has a climbing rope, or other sensory interactive features, that will allow a group of kids and families to use it privately for an afternoon.
With the group's first event under its belt, Dunworth said the dinner accomplished exactly what she'd hoped it would: giving every member of the family a special night out together.
Of those who attended, many brought entire families, some even inviting extended family like aunts, uncles and grandparents to join.
People came from as far as Northwest Indiana, she said.
The parents, especially, offered Dunworth praise for bringing Autism Eats to Chicago.
"I had parents come up to me and say they don't like to go out to eat with their kids that much because of the pressure, I had two dads say that to me," she said. "They said, 'We're going to go to every single Autism Eats event, this was so relaxing, so fun.'"
The event had toys and decorations for the kids, gifts and resources for parents and a dinner buffet. [Facebook/Autism Eats Chicago]