Coalfire under fire

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Coalfire, the new coal-oven pizza place on Grand from longtime Matchbox bartender J. Spillane and partner Bill Carroll, has been open all of a week--and the thread on LTH Forum is up to 95 posts and counting. It's a fascinating lesson in the power of the Internet to serve (to paraphrase one of the site's moderators) as a force for both good and evil.

Call it the Smoque effect: when the place opened last Tuesday, anticipation for Chicago's first New Haven-style coal-oven pizza already ran high, and after glowing reports--complete with luscious pix--hit the Web, the mobs descended. By Thursday LTH diners were writing in to complain of 90-minute waits and harried service. Two days and the romance was over: frustrated posters slammed the owners for the "lack of preparation" and their failure to comp meals when the kitchen was clearly overwhelmed. It didn't help when, on Sunday night, Coalfire closed early, having run out of dough. 

Things have calmed down now, at least on LTH Forum. The whole hoo-ha does reopen a perennially fascinating debate about the role of critics, bloggers and other media in a notoriously fragile industry. LTH moderator Mike G sums it up thusly: "It's nice that we're known for enthusiastically embracing really good new places. But the more we grow, the more we have the power to swamp a place two days after it opens, wiping out the usual learning curve that comes with gradually increasing business in the first few weeks. If we then follow that by ripping into every new place that doesn't have its act together perfectly the first week, for the whole world to read, and holding permanent grudges based on something that went wrong on day 3, then people aren't going to be happy to get LTHForum attention-- they're going to dread it."

Meanwhile, over at Coalfire, Spillane says the joint's instant popularity caught him completely off-guard: he knew of LTH, but figured it was read by "like 50 guys or something. I didn't realize it was thousands."  He admits they were unprepared for the onslaught, but swears this week will be better. "You can only fit so many pies in the oven at a time," he points out, but they've hired more help to at least smooth the prep and customer service. Sunday being Mother's Day, he says, they underestimated the amount of dough they'd need, figuring it'd be a slow day. They won't make that mistake again.

Overall Spillane is sanguine. "Oh my God, it was crazy," he says of his first week in the pizza trenches. "But it's a great problem to have."

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