"You can tell what popular culture Americans have been exposed to by what foods they ask for in the shop," says Nick Spencer of Spencer's Jolly Posh Foods, 3755 N. Southport. "If they've seen Wallace and Gromit, they want Wensleydale. If they watch Doctor Who, they ask for Jammie Dodgers." I've just introduced him to another one: my kids play the computer game Minecraft (think Legos on a screen) and watch a series of Minecraft vidcasts from the UK, the commentary on which introduced them to Jaffa Cakes, a brand of thin little sponge cakes smeared with orange jam and covered with chocolate. He has them right on the shelf opposite us (though Jammie Dodgers are either out of stock or possibly in another dimension just at the moment).
The finest in English junk food is probably what Spencer's Jolly Posh Foods was known for in its previous location just around the corner on Irving Park. But the move to a bigger, sunnier space makes it immediately clear that there's a full British-food invasion going on here that goes well beyond biscuits and crisps. The new space has a full kitchen and a couple of long tables, and as of tomorrow it will start serving lunch and tea service, with dinner to start in July.
That brings Londoner Spencer to where he meant to start with his business: making and serving artisanal versions of the foods he was homesick for when he first moved to New York a few years ago. He'd wangled a transfer out of his bosses at Ernst & Young in order to be at least on the same continent as a Chicago woman he'd dated long distance for about three years. (They're now married.)
Trying to find familiar English foods in New York acquainted him with the state of imports from the UK, and in Chicago he decided to start making artisanal versions of meats such as bangers (sausages) and English bacon (which comes from the loin and the belly together, versus American bacon, which is usually all belly). Knowing the American affection for a sort of mythical English tweeness—"British cooking has a bad reputation among Americans, but they quite like England and Ireland," he says—he gave it a tongue-in-cheek name that could have come out of Harry Potter, and fulfills the requirement for quaintness. (The PR invite for an event last week said, "We'd be chuffed if you made it!")
Of his early naivete about the business Spencer says, "I figured, you make a product, you get it into Jewel and all the shops, and by the end of the year you're a millionaire, that's the plan, isn't it?" Instead he put in long hours handing out samples of his meats to shoppers at farmers' markets and serving the meats on sandwiches. The business did grow, slowly, and he opened a shop in 2012, filling it out with other imported items from Britain and Ireland. He added a small cafe on the side a year later.
But there was a bit of a philosophical disconnect between the artisanal meats he was making himself and the mass-market processed foods he was able to get from the UK. Now he makes a point of showing off some smaller, more artisanal brands he's added to his shelves recently, like a line of crisps started by an East Anglian farmer who found himself with more potatoes than he could sell, and which come in never-in-America flavors like "pork sausage and English mustard."
His artisanal aspirations will come full circle at the new cafe, which will serve house-made breakfast items like scones with imported clotted cream and strawberry jam, and at lunch what he calls, doffing the part of the English gentlemen teaching manners to Americans, "civilised sandwiches." (It's hard not to crack up at his cheeky overuse of tourism cliches, with salads named for Wimbledon and Hadrian's Wall.)
But the star attraction, perfectly attuned to the stroller mom population along Southport, will be afternoon tea service, priced at $19 per person for two people. That's something you can get at a few downtown hotels (where it tends to run from $25 to $40 per person), but it generally requires customers and the waitstaff to dress the part. Jolly Posh's tea is more casual, but includes a proper assortment of finger sandwiches (such as roast ham with Ballymaloe tomato relish) and pastries, from the scones to sticky toffee pudding.
And there's one other essential part of British culture that will come into play as dinner service begins: Spencer went through the process of getting two separate liquor licenses, one to be able to sell imported artisanal British beers, as well as French wines as packaged goods, and another to serve them at dinner. "We're trying to marry the various components of what we've done before," he says. "We started as an artisanal meat business, and then we started importing a whole load of staples of British food. And then we were, OK, why don't we team with the local specialty suppliers back home and get more artisanal foods? Then we launched the cafe for a year, and finally, let's move to a location with a full, working, bigger, badder kitchen and the ability to serve beer and French wine, plus some bespoke spirits from the UK and Ireland. That's been our journey."Spencer's Jolly Posh, 3755 N. Southport, 872-802-3840, jollyposh.com