Carving out space in Chicago's food industry
Insights from Shelley Young, The Chopping Block (Merchandise Mart, Lincoln Square)
With The Chopping Block’s Shelley Young, it’s all about opportunity. It’s unclear what she means by that until she explains how The Chopping Block was created: not as a childhood dream or a means to escape the restaurant business, but as a spur of the moment adaptation. Shelley bought the space currently home to The Chopping Block as a way to save her parents’ antique business back home in Iowa--she thought a move to a bustling urban area could rejuvenate dwindling sales. But when her parents rejected the offer, Shelley couldn’t bring herself to drop the facility entirely. It was just too big of an opportunity to let go. So instead, she spontaneously developed the premise for what is now The Chopping Block, a recreational cooking school that combines education and entertainment.
“If I see something, and it feels like an opportunity… if it’s an opportunity, I have to take advantage of it.”
The Chopping Block has become a hodgepodge of all of Shelley’s passions in one place. It’s an event space for corporations, a restaurant for birthday parties, the perfect spot for date night, a cooking school, and so much more. It’s an eclectic mixture, and it works in ways she never could have imagined when she started. But the common denominator in all that the Chopping Block does? Food. And food is how Shelley makes an impact on the lives of her customers: "Anytime anything important is happening, there’s food there… and if we have any influence, any positive influence, in that… it’s pretty exciting."
But it’s clear that the concept and execution weren’t always simple. It took six years of remodeling to bring the facility to its current state, and it still isn’t finished - they’re starting another remodeling phase in January 2018, and they’re hoping to be done with the entire process by 2019. But the results are worth it.
The space itself reflects its range of uses. The storefront looks like a homey antique shop, or perhaps a mom & pop version of HomeGoods. Upon closer examination, it could be a gourmet cooking store, with employees hustling and bustling about the front, helping customers pick the best cast iron skillet or educating them on the best cream cheese to jam ratio on crackers for an appetizer.
The three main kitchens feature beautiful artwork designed by Shelley’s wife and elegant wooden tables, effortlessly combined with sleek, modern counters and cabinetry. These are undoubtedly professional kitchens: but we can all cook in them. The school is homey and warm, yet decidedly modern. The perfect place to finally learn how to cook.
Food is personal, and The Chopping Block has found itself filling an important space in people’s lives. Shelley takes pride in that, remembering a recently married woman who had no idea how to cook but desperately wanted to make a “real” Thanksgiving dinner for herself and her husband. With nowhere else to turn, she frantically enrolled in The Chopping Block’s Thanksgiving 101 class. In just two hours, she learned to make turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, green beans with bacon, roasted root vegetables, brussel sprouts, dinner salad with homemade vinaigrette, pumpkin pie, and apple pie. After the session, that woman went home and made all twelve of those dishes for her family, promptly enrolling herself in a plethora of other classes hosted by The Chopping Block. Every year since then, she's returned to attend another session of Thanksgiving 101. It’s her own Thanksgiving tradition, and The Chopping Block facilitated it.
“We actually get to influence the places where people are coming together… the important parts.”
It’s remarkable that Shelley has been able to accomplish so much with this endeavor, yet not surprising. It’s the nature of small business: they have the independence to take risks and explore untouched terrain in ways that a large corporation or chain never could. And Shelley has used these opportunities that come with being a small business to carve out a niche in Chicago’s bustling restaurant industry.
At The Chopping Block, you get to follow your food from start to finish and take that experience home with you. Despite the very different experiences The Chopping Block offers, it has a clear influence on every single person who walks in the building. There’s a space here for everyone to learn and experience in their own way. And that’s why The Chopping Block is special. Shelley has managed to combine corporate holiday parties, teen cooking “boot camps,” professional knife skills classes, and date nights and host them all in one place. It’s a beautifully eclectic mix. So next time, don’t just walk past: from ramen workshops to holiday cookie exchanges, everyone’s sure to find something for them at The Chopping Block.