How Does a Restaurant Last 35 Years? The Family History of Chicago's Heaven on Seven

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[Photographs courtesy of Heaven on Seven, unless otherwise noted]

Think back to the American culinary scene in the early 1980s: before Martha, Mario, and Alton were first-name-basis food celebrities; before every chef offered a tasting menu; before "artisan mayonnaise" was a thing. Hell, before the word "artisan" was common food jargon.

A lot has changed since then, both in restaurants themselves and the culture that surrounds them. It's not uncommon these days for a place to open, get reviewed, and close all within a matter of months. In the country's most expensive cities, ever-growing start-up and operating costs make opening a restaurant more difficult than ever. So what does it take for a restaurant to stay open—and thrive—for over 30 years in one of America's most competitive markets?

Last month, chef Jimmy Bannos' original Heaven on Seven in Chicago turned 35, a feat unachievable to even some of the most ambitious restaurateurs. Heaven is not a trendy restaurant; there are no immersion circulators to be found, and Bannos was thrilled when he could have a broiler in his second location, which opened 17 years after his first.

But Heaven has succeeded where few restaurants do. Popular with tourists but hardly a tourist trap, the Creole-style place has become something of a Chicago icon, drawing in crowds even as Chicago's food fashions whizz along.

I sat down with Bannos to let him tell Heaven's story in his own words, from when his family bought the restaurant to moments where everything could have gone wrong, to what he thinks the future holds.

The Takeover Years

My family took over Heaven on Seven on February 4th, 1980. At the time it was a Chicago take on a New York Jewish deli. The matzo balls were all frozen, the kreplach was okay at best, and the corned beef came already cured. A father and son-in-law team owned it. When we first walked in the father was smoking a cigar in the kitchen. The ash was going into the kreplach and he was like, "Eh, don't worry about it. It adds extra flavor." We couldn't believe it. I looked at my dad and said, "This guy's gotta go." I was only a few months out of culinary school, but even then I knew I could figure out recipes and make them a thousand times better.

We started making homemade stuff out of a Jewish cookbook: matzo balls the size of my fist with chicken broth poured over them, sides of beef for our own brisket and ground beef for kreplach, and homemade pickles, all just to make what was there already better. That was the start.

We were in a 21-story office building in the Loop. There weren't many options in the area, just a few diners doing some pretty great plated lunches. Back in the '30s and '40s, a lot of the office buildings had a diner inside that would basically just feed the people who worked there, and when we bought the restaurant our space was still doing just that.

We were in a $4.95 price range for specials. What can you sell for $4.95? A lot of chicken and a lot of pasta. So we figured we'd put a twist on the food; we started doing Greek specialties and a lot of Italian stuff, like a chicken breast pounded thin and breaded, covering a whole plate with a great red gravy and mozzarella poured over it. People were really receptive. And then there was the Jewish food we were making from scratch, and people would come in and go, "Man, it's so much better than the crap they made before." So we were building a whole new clientele just from that.

The Creole Invasion

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Back in 1976, a cousin of mine was marrying a girl from Biloxi, Mississippi, and her father came up for the engagement party with Southern, New Orleans-y marinated and stuffed crabs. When we went down to the wedding we had catfish and smothered steaks and all that, and I remember being like, "My god, this is good." I was just a kid, but years later it still clicked with me, and I was forever interested in Creole cuisine.

Around 1984, "New American" cuisine was just starting to happen, with Larry Forgione and Alice Waters leading off. I had just gotten Paul Prudhomme's book of Creole food and starting making some stuff from it. At the time we couldn't find any andouille sausage in Chicago, so we used a good smoked Polish sausage instead. I started adapting his recipes, doing research and experimenting, learning quickly. The cuisine fit perfectly into Heaven's menu; a chicken étouffée would make a hundred servings at $4.95 a plate, with a profit.

Paul invited me down to New Orleans for a long weekend, and by the time I came home from that trip I'd eaten with the best. The chefs down there started hooking me up with sources for the best sausage or spices or turtle meat, and I decided I wanted more New Orleans specials regularly on my menu.

I started doing gumbo every day, and people loved it. We started getting people from outside of the building who had heard about this Jewish deli also doing Southern food. We did a Mardi Gras menu, then specials for Fat Tuesday. Then people were coming in and asking for the New Orleans specials; they wanted to see more of them. Within days I put a new menu on, and we never looked back.

Of course, prices started to inch up, since I was serving soft shell crabs—"whales" that are seven inches from tip to tip, fatty, and when you fry them up just fantastic—which were 15 bucks a pound, and stellar. So the prices had to inch up to match, and we could charge $6.95!* People stopped eating the kreplach and started eating the gumbo. New Orleans soups started replacing matzo balls.

* About $10.40 today.

Then Food & Wine did a piece on "where the critics eat," and they included our local Chicago Sun Times critic James Ward. He passed away in 2009, but he was there for a long time. We didn't know him personally, but evidently he liked us, because in that piece he said we were the place to eat. Then he did a piece on us for Channel 7 and we got to know him better, and then other local TV stations and food critics starting coming in.

'It was a Joint'

Everyone loved the family aspect of it. We were really friendly, and we started building relationships that we still have 35 years later. We had 15 seats at that counter, and about seven relationships that started there between customers that turned into marriages. Those marriages turned into wedding rehearsals, kids' parties, and baptisms; it's crazy, thinking of the evolution of people's lives there over such a long period of time. It's just nuts.

One reason why I think it worked is because our restaurant broke down class barriers. I'd have a Supreme Court judge sitting at the counter and having a bowl of red beans, talking sports to a guy from the Streets and Sanitation Deparment who was eating gumbo. It was a magical cocktail of people; everybody let their guard down. It was a joint. Everyone has their favorite joint, and ours was that for so many people.

From the late '80s on, we served 600 to 800 people in 120 seats from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. We would have a line down the hall. My mom would bring two-ounce plastic cup shots of gumbo to people who were waiting, and so everyone loved my mom. She'd even sneak some of our regulars through a side door. Even if they only had an hour for lunch, patrons would know that by the time their cups of soup were done, their entrées would be up and they could get back to work.

The Expansion Curse

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In 1997 I partnered with Rich Melman and opened the second Heaven on Michigan Avenue. I thought it was a really good idea at the time, but 18 years later I wish I'd never done it.

In the early '90s we'd started doing a dinner at the original Heaven on the third Friday of each month, serving 200 or 250 people between 5:30 and 9 p.m. It was insane. Then we started dinners called "Let Jimmy Feed You," where you'd have seven courses with an amuse for $35. People would go out of their minds! I'd play with dishes, mixing it up: seared diver scallops, Jamaican jerk oxtail on top of mashed potatoes, things infused with Caribbean spices, "Italian Creole." Some things would transfer to the day menu and, at the price of now $8.95 including soup and salad, you weren't going to get that value or variety anywhere else. That was the impetus for opening the second place, and then the third, getting to expand those special events on a regular basis when we had bigger space and a larger support staff.

But multiples are interesting. For 17 years we had been doing this New Orleans-style food. And then we opened up a flashier place with a larger kitchen. We could do more, but it wasn't a joint like the first. People were like, "Oh, the gumbo's not the same, the turtle soup's not the same." I would be making it, so it was the same thing, but people were saying that it was the second best gumbo in the city. The engine of the machine was the same as the original restaurant, but getting our customers to believe that—and accept everything new we were trying to do there—was a push.

I resolved to accept that, but it was hard to do. If you do two different concepts, you hope your name is good enough that people will give you a chance. But doing the same thing again depleted my original customer base. My restaurants were only a mile apart, and so a lot of people who would cross the river to go to the original could now go to the closer one. And then in the early 2000s, new restaurants came in the area and made the competition different. So I sold the second location years ago. [Ed: The second location recently closed after this interview was recorded.]

Then we opened a third place by Wrigley Field. To be honest, I really thought the area needed something different than just chicken wings and quesadillas, so I hit them with our full menu. Looking back, I wish we'd just done po' boys and gumbo, things you could get for under $12 while standing at a long bar. Actually, looking back I probably just wouldn't have opened there to begin with.

The people who are the mainstays of the area—who live just blocks away from Wrigley Field—hate baseball season. They hate the Cubs. During the season there's such an influx of people getting drunk and peeing on their lawns, and so they don't stay local to eat, and they're the ones who would have been our regulars. Meanwhile the baseball people just wanted bar food. I had a very reasonable 25-year lease, but I just sold it in January. I always joke that I switched back to being a White Sox fan after opening that location.

Today's Heaven

A lot of cuisines seem to go in and out of vogue and, lucky for us, Southern food is hot again. We were such an institution that our business never suffered very much, but now we're free to make some changes, so I think we're on the cusp of exploding again. Since Valentine's Day weekend we've been open for dinner Thursday through Saturday. Our customers have been driving us crazy for years asking us to do it, and after closing Wrigley we finally had the time. Every weekend it builds more and more.

I don't change the staples on our menu; what's made us successful more than anything is that you can rely on our consistency, and so the gumbo you get today is the same gumbo you got 30 years ago. But I'm in the kitchen almost every day, tweaking and playing, and swinging with the times. The "pimento cheese" sauce for a play on a hushpuppy dish has $80 worth of five kinds of Cheddar cheese per a big batch. Our breading has always been a blend of flour and cornstarch, but now I've added Wondra flour and rice flour, which gives our fried food a crunchier coating. I didn't know about rice flour 30 years ago; that's what my son, Jimmy, and the younger generation have taught me.

We were getting the young crowd in here 35 years ago, and we're still getting the young crowd in here now. We push a lot through social media—we're constantly posting pictures and counting down to Fat Tuesday—and it's special to see young people coming in here for the first time, having found this old-school joint.

Looking Back at the Long Game

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Looking back as a restaurateur, I feel blessed. We had people at our 35th anniversary party who'd been coming since we started. One guy talked about how he started coming in with his friends when they were in law school, then they were state attorneys, and now some of them are judges. There were these four brothers who were traders, very heavy hitters, and they'd come in all hyped up at 10:30 in the morning, high from making so much money. They got into "remember when..." mode.

And there were many remembrances of my mom. There was this one guy who said, "You know, I brought your mom a Christmas present every year because she was always so warm and made me feel like part of the family." I watched my grandchild running up and down the hallway with my son, and had incredible deja vu, thinking back to me doing that with my son Jimmy. Customers could see the progression of their lives at these tables, and so could we. It's really wild. To me, shit, what else can you ask for?

Regrets and Family Legacies

My one big regret is that I never cooked a day in any restaurant in New Orleans, other than for benefits with friends down there. If I had known that I was going to cook New Orleans food, I would have gone down there to cook for a few years after culinary school. So I made sure Jimmy knew that he needed to go work at other places, so that he could grow stronger and see what other people are doing. He needed to go to Europe. He needed to see what other doors could be opened.

It was hell for him, going into kitchens like Del Posto in New York, since everyone knew he was my kid and they gave it to him harder because of that. But he persevered because he's grounded and works hard; when he won the James Beard Award for his work at The Purple Pig I couldn't have been more proud.

When I think about the future, I think about setting my legacy. Jimmy is successful at Purple Pig, but he came in and helped me work Fat Tuesday because he still has one foot in the door at Heaven. My daughter has a successful company, but she's so good at making this place feel like home for our customers that she'll still wait tables sometimes, so she still has one foot in here, too.

My brother's son, Andrew, gets it, and he's helping me streamline some of our production and is always coming at me with new ideas. My nephew Anthony gets it too; he understands hospitality and hard work. I'm building the future for the fourth generation and I feel great about it; a lot of people aren't so lucky to be able to pass something like this on.

I'm only 57, so I have at least 15 more years of 16-hour days to go in me, as long as no one's trying to tell me where to be. But I feel very lucky, because working with the younger generation gives me so much energy. And they know, too, that a lot of people in this business don't have this sense of family. We all eat, drink and sleep this. I love serving people and I love dining. I love going out to eat. What a luxury this still is.