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Bird Brains/Blue Christmas

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The only thing more American than apple pie is apple pie served at a fast-food restaurant, and as Western commercial culture spreads across the globe, even the Arabs are learning to have it our way. About ten years ago the Fakieh family of Saudi Arabia, whose poultry business is the largest in the Middle East, wanted to expand into fast food, so they turned to Chicagoan Joel Steinwold. A graduate of the MBA program at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Steinworld managed a local Burger King before opening Muskie's, the hamburger and hot dog stand that's become a fixture in Lakeview. To win Steinwold's services, the Fakiehs offered to buy Muskie's. But Steinwold sold it to another party before joining the Fakiehs in Mecca.

They came up with a fast-food concept that made freshness a marketing hook: chickens would be delivered to the restaurant, grilled, and served to customers within four hours of processing. At Taza (Arabic for "fresh") any chickens not bought within ten minutes of cooking would be given to charity. Taza has been a hit with Saudis; since 1990 the chain has grown to 22 restaurants in Egypt, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia.

Eager to expand on their success, the Fakiehs turned to the U.S., where Steinwold would be operating on his home turf. Chicken-oriented restaurants are a wise choice in this health-conscious age--by the year 2000, Americans will be eating 81 pounds of chicken per capita every year, nearly double the amount they consumed 30 years ago. Last October the flagship Taza in America opened at 39 S. Wabash. Steinwold, a blunt, fast-talking fellow, says he has no illusions that Taza will give McDonald's or even Kentucky Fried Chicken a run for its money. But he's convinced that Taza can establish itself as a fast-food contender in the U.S. through quality and the freshness pledge it's carried over from the Middle East. To prevent the restaurant from giving away too many unsold chickens, Steinwold has installed a fancy computer that can tell chicken grillers exactly how many birds they'll need to meet the anticipated demand at any given time of day.

And to get that dead bird onto your plate in less than four hours, Steinwold has contracted with a group of Amish farmers in Indiana to grow and deliver chickens to Taza's specifications. "These chickens get no antibiotics or growth promoters, just soybeans and corn," he says. The chickens are processed at a plant in Chicago and delivered to the restaurant. To compete with the value pricing at other fast-food chains, Taza sells a 20-ounce whole grilled chicken with pita bread for $3.99. But Steinwold has also introduced a selection of chicken-based salads, ranging from Caesar to Chinese. Side dishes include basmati rice, a vegetable of the day, and a southern-style coleslaw. The restaurant also sells muffins and granola in the morning.

When not involved in day-to-day operations, Steinwold has been analyzing his sales data and customer traffic patterns. He estimates first-year sales at more than $2 million. The basic $3.99 chicken plate accounts for 46 percent of total sales, but a juice bar hasn't succeeded. "We're doing 50 or 60 juice orders a day, when we need to be doing 150 to 200 to make it work," says Steinwold.

Suburbanites make up about 40 percent of Taza's customer base, leading Steinwold to conclude that the restaurant could work beyond the city limits, and the Fakiehs have given him the go-ahead to open two more restaurants in the area next year. But Steinwold wants to wait. "This is a brand-new market for us and a shot in the dark to some degree, so I want to take my time developing what we have here from a product standpoint first." For their part, the Fakiehs are planning new restaurants in Brunei, Singapore, Lebanon, and Malaysia.

Blue Christmas

Theater crowds usually increase once the Christmas shopping and holiday parties are over, and two productions have scheduled extra performances. Blue Man Group at Briar Street Theatre will do 31 performances between December 22 and January 4. Most shows in Chicago do no more than eight performances a week, but Blue Man is doing as many as 19; a non-Equity production, it doesn't adhere to union rules. The Chicago company employs five actors who rotate as the three blue men in the show. Meanwhile, The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is having a very merry debut season at the Rosemont Theatre. A source close to the production estimates that between December 12 and 28 it will rake in close to $4 million for 30 performances--nearly $1.8 million a week, a record for a local theatrical offering.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Joel Steinwold by Alexander Newberry.

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