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Cafe Aggravation/Small Is Beautiful

Restaurateurs Maureen Murray and Michael Zartman have given up dealing with the Park District. Their North Pond concession will be taken over by Michael James of the Heartland Cafe.

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Cafe Aggravation

When the cafe on the edge of North Pond in Lincoln Park finally opens for the season in mid-June, Michael Zartman and Maureen Murray won't be greeting customers as they have for the past three summers. The two restaurateurs had asked the Chicago Park District, which controls the cafe site, for a five-year operating contract, but the Park District refused. Says Zartman: "What the Park District finally offered us this year was simply too uncertain an arrangement for us to throw our professional lives on the line for."

For Murray and Zartman an entrepreneurial adventure in Lincoln Park wound up being an exasperating exercise in dealing with a bureaucracy that, rightly or wrongly, was more concerned with its own rules and regulations than with helping two eager young businesspeople build a successful restaurant on Park District property. When Zartman and Murray took over the cafe in 1992, a series of lackluster managements had failed to make much of an impact. Lacking the funds for major renovations, they spent several weeks scraping down, cleaning up, and painting everything at the cafe. Then they revised and expanded what had been a limited menu of hot dogs, hamburgers, and traditional concession-stand fare. "We added more healthful foods--salads, vegetarian dishes, and pastas," says Zartman. They kept the place open seven days a week and introduced live music at Sunday brunch, as well as dinner service with a full wait staff. Neighborhood residents responded enthusiastically to the changes, and by the end of the 1994 summer season, Zartman says Park Place Cafe was serving as many as 900 customers a week.

Last fall Zartman and Murray went to Park District director of lakefront services Bridget Reidy to discuss major capital improvements that they felt were essential if the restaurant was to remain usable for the long haul. According to Zartman, he and Murray were willing to invest approximately $200,000 in the cafe if they were awarded a five-year contract. But Reidy's first priority apparently was to hire a manager to oversee concession operations throughout the Park District system, and she wasn't interested in signing any long-term concession contracts until the new manager was in place. According to Reidy, the new manager will be responsible for determining whether the 87 concessionaires currently operating in city parks are properly serving the areas they're in and whether the Park District is making all the money it can from its current agreements.

When Reidy was unable to fill the position over the winter, she had no choice but to deal with Zartman and Murray's request on her own. In April she offered them a one-year renewal with minimal capital improvements. Zartman and Murray balked, and she countered with a two-year offer, again with only minimal improvements to the building. She says she wasn't able to offer them a five-year contract because Park District codes prevent any concessionaire from getting a five-year contract unless it's first put out for public bid. Reidy, who was under the impression that Zartman and Murray wanted the Park District to invest $200,000 in improving the cafe, says a Park District contractor examined the Park Place Cafe and concluded that it didn't need such extensive repairs.

Given the added uncertainty of how a new Park District concessions manager might affect future negotiations, Zartman and Murray chose to walk away from the cafe. Park District executives immediately launched a search for a new operator, and awarded the contract to Michael James and Katie Hogan, cofounders of the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park. Reidy says, "We approached a number of different people about operating the facility, but we went with Michael James because we felt he had a more community-oriented approach to his business, which is what we wanted." James has signed a two-year contract to operate the North Pond restaurant. "I think the Park District is taking a more user-friendly approach to running the parks, and this looked like a good opportunity to us," he says.

Small Is Beautiful

Though the touring production of Family Secrets was originally slated for the Shubert Theatre, before its opening the producers moved the show to the Royal George Theatre Center, providing a more intimate setting for the funny and poignant one-woman show starring Sherry Glaser. Instead of a three-week run at the 2,000-seat Shubert, the show will now run for ten weeks at the 500-seat Royal George.

By making the switch, the producers hoped to give the production extra time to build an audience based on positive reviews and word of mouth. According to coproducer David Stone, the switch has paid off. But what has most surprised Stone and his fellow producers is the number of those under 40 in the audience. This demographic group infrequently attends live theater, and producers here and elsewhere around the country are most anxious to turn its members into regular theatergoers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Peter Barreras.

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