Soul Kitchen owner Pam Scariano gazes up at the ceiling and counts on her fingers the number of employees who have been with her through the restaurant's transitions. "Let's see, two have been with me since day one," she says. Eight more have stuck with her since the 1995 move to North, Damen, and Milwaukee. "I'm so lucky," she adds, realizing that those ten make up over half her staff. "I have hardly any turnover."
But her employees' loyalty may be more than luck for Scariano, who celebrates Soul Kitchen's tenth anniversary this month. "I think it helps that I've been in the industry for so long," she says, referring to her eight postcollege years as a waitress and bartender at local restaurants. "I don't expect my staff to do anything I wouldn't do and I'll jump in serving and clearing whenever someone needs it." As for Soul Kitchen's longevity, Scariano seems surprised and almost uneasy. "Yeah, five years is the life expectancy of a restaurant," she says. "I guess we're past that."
The seeds for Soul Kitchen were sown in fall 1992, when Scott Gray, Scariano's college buddy and then owner of the Lizard Lounge, asked her to be his partner in a loose plan he had for a restaurant. "The only thing he knew at that point was the name--Soul Kitchen, after the Doors song," says Scariano. She was bartending at Mia Francesca and preparing to take her law school admission test. "I never really said yes to him, but the next thing I knew we'd signed a lease on the space." It was at Chicago and Leavitt, in a space formerly occupied by a Polish restaurant, with a tiny kitchen and minimal seating. But the $475 rent was just right.
A few months later they hired chef Monique King, a friend of a friend of Gray's. They painted the walls green and some thrift-shop chairs orange, covered the tables in faux zebra skin, and on January 12, 1993, opened the funky BYO eatery.
A year and a half later Gray decided to move to Costa Rica, and Scariano bought him out of the partnership. Then in early 1995 Scariano's friends and veteran restaurateurs Michael Noone and Terry Alexander proposed to finance a move to a larger and better located storefront at 1576 N. Milwaukee. Scariano was leery about moving in an industry where the credo is generally "If it ain't broke, don't fix it": "I had a few friends who renovated their restaurants and then went bankrupt. It freaked me out a little." Plus she liked her little Chicago Avenue storefront. "I could have stayed in that space for the rest of my life," she says. "I told them that I'd move, but only if they promised not to change anything--I mean down to the colors on the walls."
They entered into a three-way partnership, and the restaurant sailed through the next seven years, gaining a new clientele in burgeoning Wicker Park as well as keeping its regulars from the original space. Chef King departed in July 1999 (after a six-and-a-half-year tenure) and was briefly replaced by Scott Freer, then by current chef Curtis Giszczynski. "We really didn't lose any customers [with the change in chefs]," says Scariano, who ran the day-to-day operations while Noone handled the business side and Alexander took care of the wine. The two new partners had obtained a liquor license, which was something new for Soul Kitchen. But for reasons unknown to Scariano, her name didn't appear on it, and she didn't bother to rectify the situation. "I wanted my name on it, but it just never happened," she says. The omission would come to haunt her.
In April 2002, Scariano proposed to buy out her two partners. Her decision, she says, was made for many reasons: the staid economy, a "difference of philosophy" among the partners, and a strong desire to be her own boss again. After months of negotiations, they dissolved the partnership on November 21--six days after the liquor license had been due for renewal. Once the agreement was signed, her former partners renewed the license; she has since started the lengthy process of getting it put in her name. But those six dry days didn't go unnoticed by her customers. "I can't believe how many people noticed and called," says Scariano. An E-mail even came to the Reader, expressing concern and confusion over the situation. (Scariano's restaurant has consistently been one of the most visited restaurants by Reader Restaurant Raters for three years running.) She declines to discuss further the current state of affairs with her former partners, whom she hasn't talked to in months.
"With all this going on this year, you know, it was kind of stressful," Scariano says calmly. Then she smiles and relates one of the more gratifying moments in the middle of the partnership shakedown. "One of my servers just looked at me the other day and said, 'I don't know if you've noticed, Pam, but we're still all here.' I'd never even thought about owning a restaurant, and here I am." And if her past record is any indication, she's likely here to stay.
Soul Kitchen is at 1576 N. Milwaukee, 773-342-9742.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.