Rob Katz And Kevin Boehm Of Boka Restaurant Group In Chicago
In a few weeks, two more restaurants will be added to the Boka Restaurant Group, the force behind 14 of Chicago’s most eye-catching, award-winning dining spaces. In October, they’ll add another—and three more restaurants are in the works after that.
Partner Rob Katz, who co-founded the company with Kevin Boehm 15 years ago, seems to thrive on a breakneck pace. Further, the depth of the talent pool in their workforce has grown to 1,500-plus employees, which will reach more than 2,000 by early 2018. “I love the fact that we have so much talent in our restaurants,” says Katz. “It kind of makes your head spin. They’re all so superb.”
Giving those employees room to climb the ranks within the company is one of the motivators for the duo’s steady pace of expansion. “People are always moving onward and upward in our company,” Katz says. “We have places for greatness.” This philosophy goes all the way back to the earliest days, when they started with a single restaurant: Boka, a contemporary American eatery. The first person they hired was Ian Goldberg, who is still with them as Boka Group’s vice president.
A newcomer to the company might well be inspired by Goldberg’s story—or by the story of Abby Kritzler, who started as a cocktail waitress and is now executive director. Or by chef Jimmy Papadopoulos, who joined the group last winter and will be at the helm of The Bellemore, which opens in October. “He’s the next big star,” Katz predicts. “He’s incredible.”
Katz and Boehm have built a track record of working with acclaimed chefs such as Lee Wolen at Boka, Giuseppe Tentori of GT Fish & Oyster and Stephanie Izard of Girl and The Goat, who won a James Beard “Best Chef: Great Lakes” award in 2013.
But the company is known for more than fabulous food. At its headquarters, which Katz jokingly calls “the mother ship,” the elements of each new restaurant are highly considered—from the location to the designer to the lease and to the chef. Often, this process takes a couple of years. Sometimes it’s longer. “Momotaro took about 12 years,” Katz says. “And I’ll tell you why: Kevin and I both love Japanese food. It’s our favorite cuisine. But when we first got together, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. We opened Boka very modestly, for about 10 percent of what it cost to open Momotaro [in 2014].”
They knew that they needed the right chef, timing and location to do justice to their fantasy of a Japanese restaurant. Then, they got lucky. “We found a building in a part of the West Loop that was an undesirable neighborhood at the time,” Katz recalls. “It was on Lake Street, under the L tracks, and no restaurant had succeeded on that street. But we saw this building, and we were convinced it was going to be the next great spot. The building itself spoke to us. It had been abandoned for about 15 years and was completely decrepit. But the columns, the beams, the height—there was just something about it.”
They recruited chef Mark Hellyar from Washington, D.C., and hired AvroKo design firm from New York City. After nearly two years of development, Momotaro opened alongside its subterranean cocktail counterpart, The Izakaya. “It has exceeded our expectations in every way,” Katz says. “It was something so special. It raised the bar in Chicago for design and taking chances with buildings and neighborhoods that some people wouldn’t have taken. We prefer to blaze a trail, rather than to follow a trend.”
To survive, restaurants must be fiscally prudent. Yet now, Katz and Boehm have the means to follow through on their passion projects. “We can open any restaurant we want,” Katz says, “but at the same time, we want them to have a realness to them. They have to have soul. They have to mean something to us.”
In addition to The Bellemore, they’re opening two restaurants at the Viceroy Hotel in September: Somerset and Devereaux, a rooftop poolside bar. Katz describes them as the company’s most ambitious undertakings to date. Boka Group is already at work on a similarly ambitious project with the London-based Hoxton Hotel: a ground-floor restaurant, rooftop bar and a subterranean cocktail lounge.
Nothing is certain in the restaurant world, but at this point it’s safe to predict that The Boka Group is going to need more uniforms for its staff-appreciation softball league and more glasses for its Cork Dork Cup blind wine-tasting competition. Its dining incentives to get employees to dine at other venues in the company will be an even sweeter deal.
Images courtesy of Momotaro Restaurant