Author: Barbara Prusila

Fine Dining Restaurants are On the Rise

Fine dining is always front and center during the holidays in Lake County—even more so with the grand opening of several new restaurants that are certain to make their mark on the community. These innovative spaces will create jobs, enhance Lake County’s appeal, and add to the enormous impact that the bar and restaurant sector has on the local economy.

Last year, the industry contributed nearly $900 million to Lake County’s Gross Regional Product, and supported approximately 20,000 jobs at more than 1,200 businesses. Judging from recent activity, this number stands to grow.

In Gurnee, officials just gathered to celebrate the opening of the Cooper’s Hawk; it is the second Lake County location for the high-profile restaurant known for delicious dishes, Napa-style tasting room and signature wine membership club.

“The enthusiasm felt from the Gurnee community was overwhelming throughout the entire process,” said Founder and CEO Tim McEnery. “Lake County’s vibrant community is the perfect match for our restaurant—at the tables, and in the kitchen. Our Executive Kitchen Manager is a graduate of the culinary arts program at the College of Lake County, and our close proximity to the school will give us access to some of the finest kitchen talent in the region. During the hiring process in Gurnee, we immediately found the workforce that we needed, and had no trouble staffing up to meet the demand.”

Gurnee — long-known as one of the area’s entertainment hotspots — also has its hands full with a few other new restaurant-related businesses. Ground-up construction is underway on a building for Restaurant Depot, a wholesale supplier of food and beverage equipment, refrigeration and supplies to independent restaurants, businesses and nonprofits. Pip’s Meadery is also opening soon, boasting of one of the top-rated beverages in the “Untappd” app. The company joins an impressive and steadily growing roster of breweries and distilleries that are expanding in Lake County and enhancing the local entertainment scene.

“We’ve seen momentum across the board, not only in the restaurant and entertainment industries, but also in retail and manufacturing, with recent big projects from Buick GMC of Gurnee and AZ Polymers,” said Mayor Tom Hood. “The activity is a testament to Lake County’s business climate, and Gurnee’s approach to business support.”

Further south, in Mundelein, the Village is ushering in a downtown renaissance with a new outdoor dining program that supports local businesses by making it easier to serve customers. The program has the added benefit of cohesively beautifying the right of way and creating an inviting environment for customers.

“Mundelein is a maker’s place, and this new program and space will let our business owners express their creativity while showing off our downtown. What’s even better is we can share this space with other Mundelein businesses and visiting businesses with the new food truck pad/business kiosk space,” said the Village’s Community Development Director Amanda Orenchuk. “We have so many incredible, authentic dining experiences to offer, and the Village was happy to work with local business owners to enhance these opportunities.”

Nearby, in Libertyville, officials are also ushering in a new crop of upscale restaurants. The Board Room, opened by Libertyville native Liz Turnbaugh, is an immaculately detailed bistro space that shines a spotlight on charcuterie. The restaurant is in good company among a row of other tastefully decorated spaces including Main Street Social, Milwalky Taco, Milwalky Trace, Firkin and others.

“Six incredible dining venues have opened over the last year alone in Libertyville including Coppolio’s, Mixto Cuisine, Harbor Kitchen & Tap, and Duck Donuts,” said the village’s Economic Development Manager Heather Rowe. “There are nine other kitchens in the works to include Hewn Bakery, Singh’s Kitchen, and Kung Fu Tea, and we expect to see their doors open soon. Libertyville is a destination for specialty restaurants and unique shops, and each new addition adds to the energy on the street. We try to make it easier for our customers to find Libertyville options through our dining website.”

Neighboring Vernon Hills is also seeing its share of bustling retail and restaurant activity. Texas-based Perry’s Steakhouse just announced big plans to open its third Chicago-area restaurant on the revamped Hawthorn Mall property—they are preparing for 11,000 sq. ft. that will provide the capacity to seat up to 350 people and four private dining rooms.

“We are excited about the momentum at Hawthorn Mall. The Perry’s announcement is just the start, and we continue to be impressed about the future of this project,” said Assistant Village Manager Jon Petrillo. “The redevelopment of Hawthorn Mall represents a $252 million investment and includes a grand plaza, 55,000 sq. ft. of retail/restaurant space, a new mall entry and over 500 luxury apartments. We look forward to creating a destination for visitors and residents of Lake County to experience and enjoy.”

Earlier this year, Crain’s Chicago Business and the Chicago Tribune both reported on a wave of new restaurants in Lake Forest, representing really experienced, innovative restauranteurs with ties to Chicago. This year, the city added five additional restaurants to the already 30 existing eateries. Among the upscale additions were Le Colonial and Sophia Steak. The Wall St. Journal, too, just picked up on the news with a story focusing on the restaurant industry’s shift in focus to the suburbs.

The sentiment is echoed by recent reports coming out of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “The suburban fine dining restaurant scene is hotter than it’s ever been,” said Illinois Restaurant Association President and CEO Sam Toia. “Despite the challenges presented over the past few years, the industry has emerged stronger and is ready to confidently meet consumer demand.”

What Does the One-Year Anniversary of COVID Mean for Lake County?

As we near the 1-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown, business continues to look a lot different than it once did. Through our work administering Lake County’s Small Business Development grant, we are all too familiar with the struggles of our small business community and know there is much more work to be done.

The accelerating rollout of multiple vaccines and loosening of quarantine regulations make us hopeful for a return to normalcy. So does the news that we are hearing from local business leaders. Two of Lake County’s key industries—life sciences and advanced manufacturing—are seeing a surge in growth. There is huge demand for packaging, PPE, testing and healthcare supplies; existing companies are expanding, and new businesses are relocating to Lake County to meet the need.

A continued tight labor market is driving wage increases and forcing businesses to explore new ways to attract, retain and upskill talent. As a result, we have seen an uptick in business engagement as companies reach out to take advantage of Workforce Ecosystem resources. We are hearing strong optimism for increased revenue and hiring this year. That hope is reflected in our project pipeline, which includes deals that could potentially result in more than 1.1 million sq. ft. of new and revamped space and 600+ jobs.

With speculative development soaring, a string of expansions at companies like Abbott, Visual Pak, Medline, Xttrium Labs, Luxor Furniture and Fischer Paper Products, new businesses such as Mighty Hook, AZ Polymers and LightMart putting down roots, significant investments in workforce development at the College of Lake County and Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, and big announcements primed for the coming months, we are confident that Lake County will emerge from the year-long disruption in a position of strength. We are doing our part to make it happen, and we are excited to see what the next few quarters bring.

Lake County is Open for Business

Lake County businesses have faced many trials during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have risen to the challenge, developing innovative new ways to engage and safely serve their customers. Never have we seen such ingenuity, powered by technological advances and sheer creativity.

Restaurants have embraced contactless service, online ordering, delivery, and pickup options, outdoor seating, and budget-conscious family-style menus. Indoors, they have created more space between tables, reduced seating capacity and minimized shared surfaces. Sanitizing stations and touchless payment options are more available than ever.

Retail businesses have pivoted. Local distilleries are producing hand sanitizer. Signage companies are creating new products to help promote businesses. Boutiques are adding online inventory to bolster sales. Many businesses have created new drive-throughs, walk-up windows, and curbside options for customers to safely pick up goods from the comfort of their cars. Special senior hours now accommodate early visits to the grocery store, and some grocers monitor entrances to spread out foot traffic. Salons check their customers’ temperatures and have installed plexiglass barriers to further ensure safety. Shoe stores offer delivery and try-at-home options. Many car dealerships are offering phone service as well as test drives, delivery, and home drop-offs. In all cases, enhanced cleaning practices help keep our community safe.

Hotels have also implemented new sanitization procedures, with many “sealing” rooms after cleaning to ensure safety. We have seen hotels partner with cleaning product manufacturers and medical organizations, exploring electrostatic and UV light cleaning technologies. One resort is offering e-learning classrooms where children can be supervised while parents can relax. Our renowned entertainment venues have also adjusted to meet shifting consumer preferences. Outdoor and virtual concerts and events abound, and drive-in movies are no longer a thing of the past.

Medical offices have transformed operations as well, with new advance questionnaires, intake forms, temperature checks, enhanced cleaning practices, drive-through vaccine clinics and telehealth services for routine appointments. No matter the need or the season, Lake County residents will find the business community is open and ready to serve. Behind the scenes, partners in the Lake County Workforce Ecosystem—Lake County Partners, Lake County Workforce Development, the College of Lake County and others—are committed to working together to ensure businesses have the resources they need to safely operate and meet your needs.