Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo aren’t waiting any longer — not for a government directive, a bank loan or a guardian angel. They’re closing Fat Rice, their award-winning restaurant in Chicago, and opening a new business in its place.
“The restaurant for the foreseeable future is dead,” said Mr. Conlon, Fat Rice’s chef and an owner, along with Ms. Lo. “We need to face the reality that we can’t exist in the future as it looks now. People are not going to feel comfortable being in close quarters or being in a cramped dining room.”
The new business, Super Fat Rice Mart, will offer meal kits — the kind of alternative strategy, from takeout to delivery to selling grocery items and farm-fresh produce, that restaurants across the country have adopted to get them through the coronavirus shutdowns.
But there’s a difference: Super Fat Rice Mart, which starts tomorrow, is not a stopgap measure. Ms. Lo said they would not reopen Fat Rice even after stay-at-home orders are lifted in Illinois.
“We feel like we need to adapt to what’s happening,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re never going to have regular dine-in customers again. But we feel like that’s not going to be for at least a year, and probably longer.”
The announcement comes as the restaurant industry is crippled by uncertainly, even as states have started to allow restaurants to reopen.
Mr. Conlon and Ms. Lo opened Fat Rice in 2012 with a menu that celebrates the food of Macau, a former Portuguese colony in China. A cocktail lounge and bakery were later added to the small space in Logan Square. In 2018, Mr. Conlon won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region, and Chicago magazine declared that “Fat Rice may be the most universally beloved restaurant in Chicago.”
After the Illinois governor issued stay-at-home orders in March, the owners laid off their roughly 70 employees, and packaged up ingredients for them and other jobless restaurant workers. (Those orders have been extended until the end of May.)
“Fat Rice was a Chicago restaurant from 2012-2020,” reads an announcement that will appear on the restaurant’s website on Wednesday. “We remain committed to providing our friends and fans with extraordinary food and beverage experiences. But it won’t be in the form of a typical sit-down restaurant.”
Super Fat Rice Mart will sell meal kits filled with ingredients, along with recipes, to make popular Fat Rice dishes at home. The first kits will cost $100 and be available for pickup outside. “It’s basically two days of food for two people with leftovers and snacks,” Mr. Conlon said. “At Fat Rice, we brought home-cooked food into a restaurant. It feels natural to just bring it back.”
Customers who buy the kits from the website will also be able to order signature dishes that require less assembly, like chile prawns and pork dumplings. The kits will change frequently and feature items imported for the restaurant, along with seasonal ingredients from nearby farms.
“The idea is to be able to continue working with the same farmers we normally do,” Ms. Lo said. “We’re part of this food system, and if we don’t continue in some way, we’re not going to have turnips next year.”
The partners estimate the new business will require eight employees once it’s up and running.
They hope to slowly grow, adding more ready-to-heat dishes and, once they feel it’s safe for customers to come inside, converting the restaurant into a small grocery.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What does the restaurant look like moving forward?’ ” Mr. Conlon said. “The vision is more like a corner store.”