Brendan Sodikoff’s restaurant empire

The man behind Gilt Bar, Au Cheval, Maude’s Liquor Bar, Doughnut Vault and Bavette’s isn’t slowing down (though several people would like him to).

  • Photograph: Chris Strong

    Brendan Sodikoff at Au Cheval

  • Photograph: Martha Williams

    Au Cheval

  • Photograph: Martha Williams

    Bavette's

  • Photograph: Martha Williams

    Doughnut Vault

  • Photograph: Martha Williams

    Buttermilk Old Fashioned doughnut at Doughnut Vault

  • Photograph: Martha Williams

    Gilt Bar

  • Photo Marina Makropoulos

    Maude's Liquor Bar

Photograph: Chris Strong

Brendan Sodikoff at Au Cheval

Gilt Bar is an anomaly in terms of first restaurants, in that it has turned out not to be Hogsalt’s flagship. Instead, it sticks out as the one Hogsalt concept that isn’t a riff on a restaurant archetype. Whereas Bavette’s is a steakhouse (albeit Parisian in style) and Au Cheval is a diner (at least, it flips burgers, stays open late and has a diner-style open kitchen), Gilt Bar is genreless, almost generic.


It’s also the only of Sodikoff’s restaurants that has not opened to universal critical acclaim and near-maniacal rapture from the public. While the speed with which Hogsalt opens new concepts (roughly one every six months) is impressive from an organizational standpoint, the truly awe-inspiring thing about his business is the crowds it consistently pulls. Days after Doughnut Vault opened in 2011, the shop had lines that wrapped around the corner and down Kinzie Street; weeks after Au Cheval opened last year it was quoting customers waits of up to two and a half hours—a reality that wasn’t helped when Bon Appetit magazine swooped in and named its cheeseburger the best in the country in a September blog post.


The adoring reactions are sometimes attributed to the food—it was particularly singled out at Maude’s, when it was under the direction of chef Jeff Pikus—but the compliments are just as often directed at the decor and vibe. When people talk about Hogsalt restaurants, they use words like trendy, dark, packed, interesting—and then they say what they really mean: “It’s very New York.”


They usually mean it as a compliment. But some people, restaurateurs in particular, say it more like an accusation.


Sodikoff freely admits Au Cheval was influenced in some ways by M. Wells, a short-lived Queens “diner” that served rich food, had long lines and was a critical darling. But that was just one in a conglomerate of influences.


“In the beginning of my career I believed in ‘new,’ ” he says. But somewhere along the line, Sodikoff began to think that new was impossible. “So I totally abandoned new and focused on good.


“When we’re looking at doing a restaurant, I only care about good. I’ll go around to places I like and think: What do I like about this place? Oh, I like that water glass, I like this table, look at this cool coffee cup. I start to put together the things I like about a space, and that ends up going into our own thing. [But] because of where [my restaurant] is, we end up having to adapt anyway—that’s how you build a restaurant. So is [Au Cheval] influenced by New York? Yes. Is it influenced by Chicago? Yeah. Am I influenced by something around the corner? Totally. I’m not afraid to mimic what I like, because I want it to be good, and if somebody else has a good idea, great—I want to use that. … I wouldn’t try to take something from somebody next door and mimic it exactly. That’s kind of insulting. I don’t do that.”


And yet this is exactly the reputation Sodikoff has earned in some segments of the restaurant industry. Of the dozen restaurateurs I reached out to for this story, almost all of them refused to speak for attribution. In general, the conversations went like this:


1. The restaurateur notes with admiration Sodikoff’s uncanny success. (“So consistent.” “Incredible service.” “He makes it look easy.”)


2. The restaurateur starts calling Sodikoff names. (“Awkward.” “Asshole.” “Conniving.”)


3. The restaurateur (or at least half of those I spoke to) suggests Sodikoff has stolen something from him or her—a dish, an employee, a concept. (Donnie Madia, a partner in Blackbird, the Publican and avec, demurred from commenting at all, aside from making a cryptic statement about the way his own company, One Off, works: “with a clear conscience,” he says. “Never [taking] advantage of anybody else.” And “when you write a business plan, you write your business plan for your restaurants.”)


Sodikoff says the accusation of stealing people is “creepy.” “It suggests that people are property, that we the operators have acquired them and they’re ours to keep.” About stealing ideas, he says “ideas are collective, built off of shared information. … Original ideas are often accidental and rarely very good on the first try.… My current lineup is an American bar, a French restaurant, a doughnut shop, a steakhouse, a diner and soon to be a delicatessen, barbecue spot, ramen bar and pizzeria. I’m pretty sure all those have been done a few thousand times over the last hundred years by many different people.”


Some of the restaurateurs I spoke with agreed. “The idea that somebody else ‘owns’ those concepts is ridiculous,” one says. (This restaurateur went on to note that Hogsalt is a heated source of jealousy among competitors, particularly because there’s only one person—Sodikoff—at the top.) But other industry veterans point to the similar trajectories between Hogsalt and the Lettuce division helmed by R.J. and Jerrod Melman. Gilt Bar, Sodikoff’s dim, clubby spot with a generic menu, in some ways mirrors Hub 51, the dim, clubby spot with a generically American menu opened by the Melmans during Sodikoff’s time at Lettuce. And in early 2011, both the Melmans and Sodikoff opened bi-level French restaurants: Paris Club and Maude’s, respectively. But in terms of style, vibe and clientele, Sodikoff and the Melmans open palpably different restaurants. And though when Sodikoff announced Au Cheval, the BOKA Group rushed to announce that it, too, had a diner in the works (Little Goat, just down the street from Au Cheval), this was probably unnecessary, as Little Goat and Au Cheval are as different in tone as classical music is from jazz.


But when it comes to Doughnut Vault, things get sticky. Sodikoff opened Doughnut Vault in an unused corner of Gilt Bar in April 2011. In February 2012, Francis Brennan and Jeff Mahin, who worked with Sodikoff in Lettuce Entertain You’s test kitchen, opened Do-Rite Donuts in an unused corner of Petterino’s. And in May 2012, Scott Harris opened the first location of Glazed and Infused in an unused corner of Francesca’s Forno. Though Sodikoff was first with the concept, some suggest the idea was actually born at Lettuce, which has been in the doughnut business (via a longtime stake in Krispy Kreme), and had a doughnut shop in the works for Chicago while he was there.


Sodikoff denies he was influenced by any work he did at Lettuce. “My whole time at Lettuce I tasted maybe two doughnuts,” he says. In fact, when it comes to influence, Sodikoff says, “Doughnut Vault influenced [Glazed and Do-Rite]. It’s not, like, coincidence, right? We opened this little boutique shop, there’s lines around the block, and within a year there are three other doughnut shops in Chicago. Where have they been for the past 20 years? Which feels good for me. It’s nice to see people borrow stuff from us. I spent my whole career borrowing things from other people.”


Mahin denies Do-Rite was inspired by Doughnut Vault. Rich Melman also denies it, adding, “Didn’t Brendan [put Doughnut Vault] in a corner that he wasn’t getting dollars out of? Well, where do you think that came from?” Melman is referring to Lettuce’s M Burger, which was built out of an unused corner of Tru in March 2010.


“Hey, I don’t fault him,” Melman says. “I’d probably do the same thing. You work with people and you learn. God bless him. He’s done a good job.”


If that really is what Melman would do, it seems Sodikoff took good notes: Hogsalt plans to open a cheeseburger stand in an unused corner of Bavette’s sometime this year.


There is one other word some restaurateurs use to describe Sodikoff: shy. Mindy Segal went on the record with a sentiment many others echoed in private. “I think he’s done a great job of making great concepts happen,” she says. “I just don’t think he’s a good supporter of the community.”


By community, she means Chicago’s restaurant community, which, to hear local chefs tell it, is tighter and more friendly than almost any other in the country. Sodikoff is seen by these chefs as standing on the sidelines. They peg him as purposefully standoffish and needlessly competitive. The fact that he is so successful, that his restaurants are so popular, that the food is inarguably good—this only makes it worse.


Sodikoff denies he’s competitive. (Several times he mentions a desire to work with BOKA, One Off and Lettuce.) But he admits he’s not the most social guy in the biz. “I’m responsible for the well-being of 200 employees,” he says. “That’s my community. … It keeps me busy. I know I can make a better effort to be involved in the restaurant community. Maybe that comes across as arrogant, but I’m just trying to focus on my job.” (As for Segal, Sodikoff notes the two have never met.)


When all of the interviews were over and this story was going to press, Sodikoff’s shy side came out: He would not, under any circumstances, sit for a photo shoot (we purchased the photo of him at Au Cheval). He pointed to shoots for other publications that had gone awry. But there was another reason, something he had mentioned during our conversations: He said he is trying to stay out of the spotlight.


“I’ll never do this again,” he had said, referring to future magazine stories. “I want to go away.”


But he still wants to call the shots.


In any case, Sodikoff is definitely not going away. In a few weeks, he’ll open that deli in River North. Then, in a few months, the West Loop barbecue spot with the Japanese noodle bar under it. After the cheeseburger place, he might get around to the pizzeria. Maybe a hotel. Maybe a nonprofit venture. And there’s always the possibility of another Doughnut Vault. I ask Sodikoff, Will you open more restaurants in London? In other cities? Just how big do you want Hogsalt to be?


He answers yes, yes and I don’t know.


With each new opening, Sodikoff moves further from the core of his restaurants. He depends more on his team, and he feels compelled to create more opportunities for them—a process that in turn requires he grow his team so it can take over duties—hiring staff, etc.—he’s too removed to handle himself. So he’s growing and he’s growing and he’s getting on a plane to check on his place in London and then traveling to Japan to research the noodle shop.


He rubs his forehead. “Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing,” he says.


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