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Brett vs. Park District--again



For the second time in two years the Park District staff has recommended against giving Brett Knobel the concession that allows her to operate Brett's Waveland Cafe, once an abandoned hot dog stand near the Waveland Avenue golf course, now a thriving business. This time she may have had enough.

"I have been having troubles with the Park District almost ever since I've been here--it's like beating your head against the wall," says Knobel. "Who needs the aggravation? I have poured my heart and soul into this place, and if the Park District can't appreciate that, I can't help it."

Steve Smith, director of concessions for the Park District, says his office has treated Knobel fairly. Her two-year contract was running out, and in November a committee of Park District employees recommended that Open Kitchen Inc., a local catering business, be awarded the Waveland concession for the next five years. "Open Kitchen gave us a better bid than she did," says Smith. "For the time I've been here I would have to rate [Knobel's] performance as a concessionaire as average."

That comment might surprise many of Knobel's customers. "It's the best establishment in the parks--most of the others only offer hot dogs and Coke," says Erma Tranter, executive director of the Friends of the Parks, a watchdog group. Since Knobel took over the concession in 1981 she's spruced up the building and devised a varied menu: fresh-squeezed orange juice, homemade soup, fresh fruit, omelets, and fresh-baked breads, cakes, and bagels. On sunny weekend days the line of customers often stretched out the door.

"Before Brett," says Tranter, "no one paid attention to that stretch of the park. She helped turn it into a destination--a place that brings people to the park. For that she should be thanked, not tormented."

Some of Knobel's problems with the Park District stem from the fact that her concession contract requires her to also operate the golf-course pro shop and locker rooms, located in the field house near her restaurant. Knobel and her mother, Gladys, who oversees the pro shop, have long complained about the field house's shabby condition.

"The light bulbs would go out in the locker room, and I'd call the maintenance office and say, "Please, it's so dark in there that the golfers can't see each other.' But they would never come," says Gladys Knobel. "I became the caretaker. I'd buy the toilet paper. The golfers would come in and say, 'Hey, Gladys, we need a roll.' And I'd say, 'Just a minute,' and get them one from behind the desk. You'd think the Park District, with all its money, could afford a roll of toilet paper."

In addition, the field house roof leaks. "Every year the plaster would start pouring off the ceiling," says Gladys. "I'd call, but no one would come to fix it. Finally they had to come because this old man got hit in the head with a piece of plaster. So what do they do? They send a guy down there and he paints over the plaster. There's a leak in the roof, and they're splashing on more paint!"

The Park District also has haggled with Knobel over rent. She pays about 17 percent of her gross, which is more than most concessionaires pay. At one time the Park District wanted her to pay more, but at this point they'd settle for her spending her own money to renovate the restaurant.

Knobel contends that she can't afford to renovate the building. "I love the cafe, but it does not make enough money to pay for all sorts of capital improvements," she says. "Sure, on some sunny weekends we get big crowds. But we're open from mid-April to Halloween, and there's a lot of rainy or cold days when no one stops in except a few golfers."

Other vendors share the Park District's more optimistic view of the location, however. In 1990 two other vendors, including Open Kitchen, bid for the concession. And the concession committee, consisting of several Park District employees, recommended that Open Kitchen get it.

But after word leaked that Brett's might be closed, about 50 people tromped down to Park District headquarters to protest. Eventually the Park District board overruled its staff and renewed Knobel's two-year contract.

"It was a very touching moment for us, a sign of how much we were appreciated," says Gladys. "After that I thought the Park District would leave Brett alone to run her business."

But the disagreements and problems continued. "You wouldn't believe some of the things we have had to put up with," says Gladys. "We had a maintenance guy come into the pro shop waving a revolver. He was looking for another maintenance man who he had a fight with. He was drunk. He practically fell on his face he was so stewed.

"When the season started last year I called the area coordinator and said, 'I think you should come here and see some of the problems we're having with the locker room.' She said, 'Where is Waveland?' Where is Waveland? My God, what a question! It's only one of the most popular stretches in the park. It seems to me the head of Lincoln Park ought to know where Waveland is."

For their part, Park District officials accuse Gladys of allowing homeless people to sleep in the men's locker room, and they accuse Brett of offering free food to the volunteers who were repairing the field house's clock tower.

"I never let any homeless people in the locker room--they got there by crawling through the window," says Gladys. "It is true that we gave some food to the clock-tower volunteers. What's wrong with that? They were doing a good deed, a service to the Park District. It's so twisted: instead of saying that's a nice thing to do, the Park District makes an accusation."

Knobel's contract expired at the end of 1992, and all during the summer she wondered whether she should reapply. She was already running Brett's Kitchen on Superior and had just opened a third restaurant, an upscale eatery on Roscoe also called Brett's, that required a considerable amount of time. "I didn't know if I had the energy to deal with the Park District," says Knobel. "But my staff really wanted me to. Some of them, like Rufino Meraz, Dey Diaz, and Trino Valencia, have worked with me for years. I felt I owed it to them. So I applied for renewal."

Knobel had her hearing before the concession committee in October. A few weeks later the committee recommended Open Kitchen, which is owned by a husband and wife. But the deal is by no means final. It has to be approved by the Park District's board of commissioners, and Knobel's supporters are planning to speak on her behalf on January 12, when the board's recreation committee meets to discuss the matter.

"There were a lot of reasons that we didn't go with Brett's, the first being that Brett did not apply for WBE [women's business enterprise] status and Open Kitchen did," says Smith. "Second, she did not propose to make any capital improvements, like Open Kitchen. And third, she was asking for a two-year term, and we wanted a minimum of three."

Knobel calls the Park District's reasoning absurd. "In the name of promoting women-owned businesses they are taking business away from a woman-owned business and giving it to a business owned by a woman and her husband--that makes no sense," she says. "It's true that I never registered with the state for WBE status. That just means more forms and fees. As for improving the facility, I don't think that as a renter I should have to pay for improvements to the Park District's property."

Knobel may have an ally in board president Richard Devine. "Nothing has been officially settled as far as Brett's is concerned," Devine says. "Obviously we can't use the [WBE] issue against her. I am a fan of Brett's. I know how much the community respects her and the quality of her product. Even if Open Kitchen offered a better financial package, you have to look at the total package, including Brett's past performance, before you make a decision."

The owners of Open Kitchen are optimistic that the board will decide in their favor. "Brett has done a real fine job," says Rick Fiore, president of Open Kitchen, which already operates a park concession near the Diversey driving range. "But we think we can do a good job, too."

Fiore promises to offer the same food at the same prices as Brett's, and he and his wife plan to spend about $50,000 on the restaurant, making repairs and building an outdoor deck. "We won't make any money for the first year or even second year," Fiore says. "We're taking a risk, but I think it's a risk worth taking because it's a great location."

Knobel is skeptical about that risk, however. "If the Fiores get the concession, I wish them well," she says. "But I truly doubt that they or anybody can rebuild the building and make money while offering my food at my prices. In my opinion they'll either go broke or wind up offering hot dogs and potato chips."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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