Getting the business from the Park District | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Getting the business from the Park District 

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On Easter Sunday the weather warmed, the sun came out, and the golfers returned. So did the joggers, tennis players, dog walkers, bicyclists, sunbathers, and roller skaters. The Waveland Avenue section of Lincoln Park came alive after almost six months of winter hibernation, except for Brett's Waveland Cafe. The ivy-covered one-room restaurant remained shuttered. It finally opened on April 21--three weeks late--but only after a protracted three-month struggle that was petty and bizarre even by Chicago standards.

"Yes, I'm glad we're open, but it's ridiculous that we had to wait so long," says Brett Knobel, who owns the restaurant. "The delay hurts everyone. Our customers lose, we lose, and the Park District loses. It's madness. Around here it seems that good things only happen by accident."

In one way or another, Knobel (like many concessionaires) has struggled with the district since she opened in 1981. At that time, the restaurant--located about a half mile east of the Irving Park Road entrance to Lincoln Park--was closed. It had been little more than a hot dog shack--a place where golfers using the Waveland golf course could grab a quick (and probably burnt) cup of coffee.

"A lot of people didn't think the location was good," says Knobel. "It has its problems. You can't really drive here. But I thought that by providing high-quality food, I could draw people to the park. Plus, I could provide a better service for the golfers, who use this place all the time."

So Knobel began offering a varied menu that included omelets, bagels, baked goods, fresh-squeezed juice, and fresh fruit. By and by, word spread, and the restaurant began drawing people to the park, particularly on nice summer days.

"It's not the kind of place you can get rich running," says Knobel. "On bad weather days, we hardly get any customers, because there are not many people in the park. But it's very gratifying to see the lines of people on beautiful days. I feel real good about Brett's because it's making the parks more enjoyable."

While Brett's popularity grew, the Park District began to change. Former mayor Harold Washington brought in a new batch of board members, who replaced Ed Kelly, the long-standing parks superintendent, with Jesse Madison. One of Madison's first endeavors was to name a panel to establish new guidelines for concessions. The panel recommended raising rents of park concessionaires.

"I had been paying 17 percent of my gross--which I thought was too high--and then the Park District suggested I raise that to 24 percent, which was way too high," says Knobel, whose lease expires this year. "I did some research and discovered that very few restaurants pay more than 10 percent of their gross for rent."

That may be true, Park District officials countered, but the big operators who sell beer at Soldier Field or hot dogs in Grant Park pay as much as 41 percent of their gross revenue in rent.

"What they fail to consider is overhead," says Knobel. "A guy who sells beer in Soldier Field has no overhead. But my food costs are higher. Plus, I want to pay my employees a decent wage. I don't want to exploit them."

When the Park District asked for bids on the Waveland concession, Knobel offered to pay 10 percent of her gross revenue as rent.

"I didn't think there would be a lot of competition for the spot," says Knobel. "And even if there was I thought the Park District would be loyal. We had collected thousands of signatures to petitions supporting my restaurant. I had built this restaurant; the community supported us."

However, two other higher bids came in. And the highest bidder--Open Kitchen, Inc.--promised to offer virtually the same menu as Brett's.

"We run the concessions at the Forest Preserve National Golf Course in Oak Forest," says Rick Fiore, an owner of Open Kitchen. "Going into Waveland was our chance to expand."

Fiore's menu was almost the same as Knobel's, plus he promised to keep longer hours and to spend roughly $30,000 rehabbing the restaurant. With the Open Kitchen bid in hand, the district's concession committee--which makes recommendations to the board--asked Knobel to increase her rent.

"The concession committee told me that they liked everything about my proposal except my guaranteed revenue," says Knobel. "I told them that I couldn't pay more in rents without losing money. They told me I should raise my prices or try to get more customers by advertising. They also wanted me to extend my hours to match the golf course. My hours had been 8 to about 5:30."

So Knobel agreed to open at 6 AM and to maintain her rent at 17 percent of gross revenues.

"Maybe I should have kept my original proposal; maybe I shouldn't have backed down," says Knobel. "But I love that restaurant. I wanted to keep it. And I left that meeting with the understanding that if I went along with their request, I would get a three-year contract."

When he heard of the tentative agreement, Fiore was upset.

"They used my bid to negotiate a higher bid from her," says Fiore. "That's not right; that's not fair. The concession should go to the higher bidder."

The matter came to a showdown at the March 19 meeting of the Recreation Committee, a subcommittee of the full board. One member, Joseph Phelps, argued that Knobel should get the contract because she had done a good job in the past; another member, Anthony Bass, said he had a "fiduciary responsibility" to award the bid to the highest bidder--in this case Fiore. The third member of the committee, Walter Netsch, wasn't there because he had recently quit the board.

So Phelps and Bass voted against each other and sent the matter for consideration to the full board. The board, meeting about one week later, approved all concession contracts but for Waveland, which they sent back to the Recreation Committee for further review. By this time, Brett's loyal supporters were on the case.

"This is a classic example of a small matter being nickeled and dimed to death while we see incredible waste go unheeded," says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks. "The difference between what Brett offered and Open Kitchen offered is about $4,000. That's $4,000 in a $326 million budget, where there is so much waste. What's more, Bass is wrong. He has to consider much more than rent. He has to consider community support, diversity of menu, and service to the community. You could argue that you don't want a higher percentage from a small concessionaire because that might force them to lower their quality of service, which would mean fewer customers, and ultimately less revenue for the Park District."

The second committee meeting was scheduled for March 29, and the first speaker was Fiore's lawyer, Michael Devine, who, citing state and local law, argued that the district has a "responsibility to offer the concession to the highest bidder."

Then about 20 of Knobel's customers stepped forward to speak on her behalf, arguing that her restaurant was too good to be lost. They pointed out that Open Kitchen's concession in Oak Forest does not offer the same diversity as Brett's.

"A lot of people can make promises, but Brett has delivered," said Earl Ramsey, a regular golfer at Waveland. "You people [on the board] have an obligation to us."

Bass and Phelps listened politely and then both voted to award the contract to Knobel. "She satisfied me that her bid was competitive with [Open Kitchen]," Bass said. "Remember, I have a fiduciary obligation to the bottom line."

Confident that full board approval would come at the April 6 meeting, Knobel told her supporters that she would probably open on Saturday, April 14.

But when the full board met, Phelps and Bass flip-flopped. Instead of voting for Knobel, they voted "present," thus denying her the five votes she needed for approval. "I was shocked--flabbergasted," says Knobel. "After the meeting, I rushed up to ask Phelps and Bass why they did it, and all they would say was no comment."

The "nonvote" kicked the matter back to the Recreation Committee for yet another hearing (this one on April 19), and ignited a round of speculation.

"I think this is part of a larger struggle between Phelps and Bass and other board members," says Tranter. "Brett is being used."

With Madison leaving the Park District, the theory goes, the Park District is in a state of chaos, allowing Phelps and Bass to emerge as powerful board members.

"This place is like being inside a Salvador Dali painting," says one Park District insider. "With Jesse leaving, things are up for grabs. No one's really in control. It's madness."

Before the April 19 meeting, Bass did not return phone calls on the matter. Phelps was more cooperative, but not much.

"Why did you flip-flop on Waveland?" I asked him.

"No comment," said Phelps.

"Why do you have no comment?"

"No comment."

"You mean, you have no comment on why you have no comment?"

"No comment."

He did promise to reveal his reasons at the April 19 meeting--and he did.

"Subsequent to the [March 29] meeting of the Recreation Committee, we received another bid from Open Kitchen," Phelps said on April 19. "In a sense of fairness, [we] felt it was appropriate, equitable, and fair to review their revised bid."

Having done so, Phelps continued, they had decided to award the bid to Knobel. Bass concurred, noting that even with the revisions, the two bids "were basically equal." Once more Phelps and Bass voted 2-0 to send their recommendation to the full board.

No one was certain when the full board would meet. But park officials--confident that Bass and Phelps won't change their minds--temporarily extended Knobel's lease, assuring her that a full three-year contract probably would follow.

"The whole thing is a joke," says Fiore. "The way they kicked me and [Knobel] around is ridiculous. I've incurred all kinds of fees; the lawyer alone will cost about 200 bucks an hour. When you see what we went through, you have to wonder why anyone would want to do business with the Park District."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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