At 4:30 AM, as the evening's most tenacious partyers stagger home, waitresses and bartenders at the Ukrainian Village bar Darkroom wipe down the counters and close up. On their way out the door they nod weary hellos to Kevin Ritter and Brian Jacobsen, whose day is just getting started. Ritter and Jacobsen will spend the next seven or eight hours making quiche, turnovers, coffee, and other breakfast standbys in the bar's kitchen and delivering them to homes in Lincoln Park, Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Ukrainian Village, and the West Loop.
They charge about the same amount that a sit-down restaurant charges for the same food, plus a $2 delivery fee. (Flowers and newspapers are available at an additional cost.)
Ritter's Breakfast Delivery, which opened three months ago, operates this way every Saturday and Sunday morning. Jacobsen is his chef; Ritter's fiancee, Caitlin McKay, answers the phone and dispatches drivers. Ritter developed the idea in Loyola's business-administration master's program, as an assignment for a class called "Strategy and Organization," the same class where Bill Rancic, first-season winner of the TV show The Apprentice, had several years earlier come up with his Cigars Around the World company. After graduating, Ritter enlisted McKay's help. The two developed a list of dishes that would travel well--"Hash browns just wouldn't work," McKay says--and started hunting for a space to work in. At first they worked out of Pizza Metro II on Ashland, but the kitchen there wasn't available late enough into the morning. After five weeks they switched to Darkroom, which stopped serving food early this year.
McKay rolls in around 6:30 AM and starts answering the phone, which has been ringing since 6 (Ritter mans it during the earliest, lightest half hour). During a lull in orders, she chats with the deliverymen, and Jacobsen wanders out of the kitchen for a smoke. He's worked at Tru, Deleece, and the Pump Room, and used to run his own personal-chef business. His schedule at Ritter's makes it easy for him to pursue his other passion--writing horror fiction under the pseudonym Jake Jacobsen. "It was just kind of hard to go home and write after 14 hours on your feet," he says. "And Kevin and Caitlin are a pleasure to work with."
"Aw, thanks," says McKay, chewing a mouthful of French toast. She and Ritter are looking a bit sleepy. "I get a little persnickety sometimes, though," she says. "I'm not a morning person."
Ritter is still trying to get the word out that his business isn't just for birthdays or anniversaries. Few other food delivery services handle breakfast, and the ones that do tend to offer only pricey, special-occasion menus. Ritter's takes orders the day of and delivers in about 30 minutes. "People will call on Friday and say, 'Is it too late to place an order for Saturday?'" Ritter says. "They don't get that it's like pizza delivery." He's making progress, though; he's adjusted the menu a few times to keep a growing stable of regulars from getting bored. The French toast in particular has gone through numerous permutations: butter pecan, chocolate orange, orange marmalade, pumpkin cheesecake, and, most recently, eggnog date. Besides the regular phone orders, Ritter has catered four corporate breakfast meetings so far and thinks there's a market for more: "A lot of people are sick of Panera Bread and Einstein Brothers Bagels."
Right now the service delivers only within the area bounded by Fullerton, Adams, Kedzie, Larrabee, and Halsted. "It's shaped like an upside-down Oklahoma," says Ritter. "In Wicker Park and Logan Square," says McKay, "people are more into new ideas. And there are more people who go out and drink the night before and might want breakfast delivered the next morning."
Ritter will occasionally make special deliveries outside the area for an extra fee, but the business just isn't big enough to consistently handle longer distances. He hopes that will change. "We've gotten calls from the Gold Coast like crazy," he says. He'd like to open another location to serve Lakeview and the Gold Coast by next summer.
To do that, he'll have to find another establishment whose kitchen is empty on weekend mornings--a difficult prospect, since many bars are doing brunch these days. His arrangement with Darkroom is ideal for both businesses. "It's good for them to make rent on something they're not using," he says, and Jacobsen doesn't have to work around the bar's employees. "We can always tell how they did the night before by how dirty the floor is," McKay adds, looking at the confetti of cigarette butts and napkin shreds underfoot.
When Ritter hurries out of the kitchen with an order, McKay jumps up to check that it's complete: quiche lorraine, tomato quiche, French toast, breakfast pizza (with bacon, eggs, and cheese), and a single red rose. The driver, a chatty, amiable man named Fred whose minivan smells like toast, drives the food to a large apartment building near Pierce and Hoyne. The young, buff, shirtless guy who answers the bell is wearing rumpled jeans with white Ralph Lauren boxers visible over the waistband. He says, "Thanks, man," grabs his food and the flower, and doesn't wait for his change before racing back upstairs. On the way back to Darkroom, Fred turns on an R & B station. A woman's voice floats out: "You should be in bed with me, taking advantage of a real good thing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.