Steinberg: Maybe the mail stopped at a bar

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Running a restaurant is more than just cooking up good food and getting it to the table.

Though many fall short even on that basic task.

There is also service to get right. And decor.

Beyond that, there is filling the role of being a business in a community with teams to sponsor and charities to support.

All of which Harry Caray’s, the landmark steakhouse and Italian restaurant on Kinzie, not to forget its various satellite locations, does exceedingly well.

Or rather, does well when the United States Postal Service manages to deliver their mail.


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Pull up a chair.

Tales of the ineptitude of the local branch of the post office are such a Chicago tradition, you hesitate before offering up a new one.

You ask, does it meet the classic standards? The piles of letters found burning under a viaduct? The sacks of undelivered mail discovered in some disturbed carrier’s home? The bar is very high.

But heck, it’s Labor Day. I shouldn’t even be working. And while Harry Caray’s CEO Grant DePorter certainly plays the media like a conductor directing a well-trained orchestra, and could generate press for a stoplight changing, there is sincere interest here.

I hope.

A stack of letters that Harry Caray’s sent exactly 10 years ago was delivered last week, the moldy envelopes arriving to their startled recipients, in some cases, with others returning to the restaurant office.

“People are getting mail all over town, 10 years ago to the date,” said DePorter, marveling at a particular return-to-sender letter from Children’s Memorial Hospital.

“They said they couldn’t locate it,” he said. “You would think the post office would know Children’s Memorial has moved.”

In 2012, from Lincoln Park to Chicago Avenue, changing its name to Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Mark Reynolds, spokesman for the USPS Chicago office, said that forwarding instructions are only good for one year, then mail is returned to sender.

From how DePorter was talking, I envisioned a burlap sack stuffed with mail moldering in a forgotten corner of some vast postal facility. It turned out we’re talking about six letters — one delivered to the Cubs, one delivered to Chris Chelios’ charity, and four returned to Harry’s.

So far. DePorter worries there are many more.

“This is like the Nielsen ratings,” he said. “Where one person represents 100 more.”

He first learned of the problem last week at Wrigley Field, fittingly.

“Andrea Burke, who works with the Cubs, ran up to us and said, ‘You will never believe what I got in the mail. An envelope that was mailed 10 years ago that contained gift certificates for Fan Appreciation Day in 2005,’” DePorter said.

At first he thought it was funny.

“Like a time capsule. Then I got the letter from the Restaurant Association.”

The letter contained gift certificates for a silent auction.

“They never got my charity stuff and I was the chairman,” DePorter said. “I was the guy calling people to say, will you donate? You never know the ripple effect. Ernst and Young never got my thank you letter for their event. The letter to Children’s Memorial Hospital had a certificate for dinner with Cubs manager Dusty Baker. They could have gotten a lot of money for that, but it never happened because the certificate for the dinner never arrived. There’s probably a lot more. This is only the tip of the iceberg.”

DePorter speculated the mail was “probably under a table for 10 years.”

The post office couldn’t offer much light.

“This is a mystery,” said Reynolds, vowing to investigate. “We need to know what happened.”

Don’t hold your breath, though.

“The only person who could tell us what happened to the mail is the mail itself, if it could talk,” Reynolds said. “This is highly unusually, an anomaly. Mail may be found in equipment we thought was empty. It does happen, unfortunately.”

I’ve known DePorter for years, and he is devoted — perhaps even obsessed — with the image of the restaurant. The idea that people were promised something from Harry’s and didn’t get it horrifies and torments him.

“I think people were too embarrassed to call us out on it,” he said. “I didn’t know they were mad at us.”

So look within. If you harbor any lingering, decade-old resentment against Harry Caray’s for not sending that gift certificate they promised, well, maybe they did and it just didn’t arrive, for reasons that will probably never be known.

In 2005, the Postal Service handled 211.7 billion pieces of mail. Last year it was 155.4 billion pieces, a 25 percent drop.

“This is why FedEx is doing so well,” DePorter said.

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