License Committee authorizes new liquor licenses at Millennium Park
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, objected to the licenses, citing a lack of minority ownership in Eleven North Hospitality, the company that bought out the clout heavy owners of Park Grill.
Millennium Park will have a renovated and rebranded Park Grill Restaurant and additional food and beverage concessions along its central promenade, thanks to new liquor licenses awarded Friday over the objections of the City Council’s Black Caucus chair.
The License Committee granted two new outdoor “lakefront venue” liquor licenses to Eleven North Hospitality, which bought out the clout-heavy owners of the Park Grill Restaurant.
The company has promised to exceed the city’s construction set-aside goals by awarding 28% of its $2.5 million in renovation and remodeling contracts to minority firms and 8% to firms controlled by women.
Ann Hickey, deputy commissioner of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said the company has also worked to identify “minority partnerships to be part of the concessions.”
Those partnerships include Momentum Coffee for the cafe and Black Dog Gelato as one of the concessionaires in the central promenade. Eleven North’s partner for the retail shop will be Tour Magnet LLC. They plan to partner with the School of the Art Institute to sell student artwork along with “Millennium Park-specific themed merchandise, as we have not done in the past” Hickey said.
“They also are looking to work with local Chicago-area vendors to sell Chicago-related merchandise. And they’re going to act as a discounted ticketing hub for tourism-related businesses and institutions with the city, offering tickets to multiple cultural institutional partners, city-tour partners to really make Millennium Park excel as a tourist destination and be a touchstone to extend it to different areas throughout the city,” Hickey said.
Those promises weren’t enough to satisfy Ervin.
Not even after Local Liquor Control Commissioner Shannon Trotter explained that only the owners of Eleven North would be “eligible for” the new liquor licenses and they “can’t sub them out” under the buy-out agreement.
“There needs to be minority and women at one of the best locations in the park system —and one of the most premier concessions in the city — for us to grant additional licenses,” Ervin told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Arguing that the company has “zero” minority ownership, Ervin said, “Eleven North needs to have MBE and WBE as part of its ownership structure.”
Ervin argued that minority builders and partners are well and good. But, he said, “Those can change in time. Today, they can be with this business and that can change tomorrow. But the ownership structure generally is pretty solid throughout the course of these types of relationships.”
The Park Grill was managed by James Horan, owner of Blue Plate Catering, and Michael O’Malley, owner of the Chicago Firehouse restaurant. They were backed by a group of clout-heavy investors with close ties to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
But the investors wanted to bail out of the sweetheart deal because the restaurant’s losses were mounting after it was forced to close because of COVID-19 and years of litigation with City Hall during the administration of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
They sold to a restaurant group headed by Wrenn.
Emanuel lost a court battle in 2015 to break the Park Grill concession deal Daley had awarded Horan and O’Malley, who originally landed the deal while O’Malley was having an affair with a park district official he has since married.
Emanuel dropped the litigation in August 2016 after the Park Grill’s new owners agreed to start paying for garbage collection, natural gas and water and to accelerate rent payments.
The city’s law department estimated the settlement would ultimately save the city $5.7 million. The city had spent $6.9 million in legal fees battling the restaurant.
Daley never testified at the trial. But, in a deposition, the former mayor claimed he couldn’t remember anything about the restaurant. Not even attending the grand opening in November 2003, which was documented by photographers.
As Daley was leaving office in 2011, Horan and O’Malley sought to sell their management stake to Levy restaurants for $8 million, a deal the Chicago Park District refused to approve.