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9,200 square feet of Italian food doesn't get any easier with age

It takes more than a good cook to open a restaurant — although it should have that. Grid breaks down what it really takes to get the doors open.

Dan Rosenthal hasn’t opened a restaurant in more than 10 years. Now the man behind Trattoria No. 10 and Sopraffina Marketcaffes is about to open two restaurants in one space in Streeterville.

Rosenthal, a 45-year industry veteran, is planning another Sopraffina — his sixth — and an as-yet-unnamed small-plates Italian restaurant for November on the corner of Erie and St. Clair. The $5 million project includes a shared kitchen.

Location. Rosenthal was approached by the building’s landlord to open a Sopraffina, but the two couldn’t agree on how to divide the space. So Rosenthal took all 9,200 square feet: “We decided that we would take them both in order to have more control over the space and not have a competitor right next door.”

That’s an “ambitious” move as restaurants are trending toward less square footage, says Mario Ponce, principal with restaurant consulting group Partners in Hospitality. “When you start getting beyond 5,000, that takes calculated risk,” he says.

Rosenthal is confident in his research, citing the location’s proximity to Michigan Avenue, hotels and the Northwestern Memorial Hospital campus.

Jarrett Fradin, a broker with commercial real estate company Kudan Group, agrees with the move east. He also says the neighborhood offers better deals than River North or Randolph Street: “Some of the rents in Streeterville are a little bit more accommodating.”

Concept. This Sopraffina will be more streamlined than the other locations, with one line for ordering instead of cafeteria-style food stations. “We’re sort of designing this Sopraffina to be a prototype for expansion,” Rosenthal says, noting that the layout he’s used since 1991 doesn’t work well for families in the suburbs.

Rosenthal took cues from his Trattoria No. 10 for the second restaurant, but with small-plate versions of Italian classics. And the landlord had one request: a “kick-ass bar.” “The small-plates concept just sort of evolved as something that would help drive the cocktail sales that we’re seeking over there,” Rosenthal says.

The high number of Italian joints nearby shouldn’t pose too much of a threat, Fradin says. “I don’t think the fact that there’s a lot of Italian in the area is going to impact his ability to operate efficiently and successfully out of those two spaces.”

Funding. It doesn’t matter how many restaurants he’s opened, Rosenthal says getting investors doesn’t get easier. “I feel like a guy standing on the Michigan Avenue Bridge with a tin cup,” he says. “It’s just demoralizing and demeaning.” Rosenthal says his refusal to take on debt has been crucial to his success.

Each location has separate investors, though some are involved in multiple deals. The biggest issue, Rosenthal says, is finding people willing to invest in a risky industry. “So that takes out 90 percent of the guys,” he says. “Then you’ve got to go to people who do do restaurants.” However, he’s been able to land 19 investors (including himself) to fully fund the project.

Trade-off. Rosenthal’s restaurants use sustainable products like recycled paper goods and antibiotic-free meats. “At this stage of the game, while it’s an expensive decision, it’s a decision I felt we couldn’t afford not to make,” Rosenthal says.

The upgrade from commodity meats causes a 7 to 8 percent hike in food costs alone — a big number in an industry with slim margins. Rosenthal sees the choice as a differentiator, but Ponce doesn’t agree: “That’s what people’s expectations are becoming,” he says. “They’re going to expect this from chefs.”

ABOVE: Dan Rosenthal is set to open his sixth Sopraffina, in Streeterville. Photo by Heath Sharp